Saturday, February 13, 2016

My Favourite Book by Naomi Ross

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed, (Vintage Books, 2012, 368 pages, available from Amazon here).

Do you remember the day you discovered your favourite book? I do. And for me the discovery was almost as important to me as the book itself.

It was beautiful day in San Francisco and I couldn’t have been more excited to return to this gorgeous city.   It was my first day back and I headed confidently out of my hotel. I knew my way around many of the streets so I could sometimes pretend that I was not a tourist, which excited me immensely. 

This city is one of my soul mates and it calls out to me when I’ve been away for too long. When I return, I instantly feel at ease in the California sun, and the cool breeze off of the bay rushes through my body and grounds me to the moment. 

My only jobs over the next few days were to relish the beauty of the city and laze in the parks while I watched the residents of SF live their lives. I’m actually not so good at mindfulness but I was sure as hell was going to try and practice it while I was there. My woes about my job, the purpose of my life, what I’m meant to do with it etc., still lingered over my head like a dark cloud but I hoped that I could shake the feeling and enjoy my vacation. 

I wanted to stop daydreaming about an entirely different life. I'm quite guilty of that, imagining a life different from my current one, a life where things are simple, all my problems are solved and I don't have a care in the world.

Reese Witherspoon in Wild
Back in university, I escaped my depression by daydreaming about San Francisco. My attachment to SF hasn’t changed since meeting it in real life. I know that if a life crisis were to arise and I needed to escape, this would be the place I’d go. So really, it’s quite fortunate for me that my partner, Steve, happens to go there once a year for business. And so I was there for the third year in a row.

On this trip, I found myself with company for a few days. Cheryl, who is dating someone who works with Steve, also decided to take advantage of this opportunity for a vacation. I was happy to have the companion but it made doing as much “nothing” as I had hoped challenging. But then if she wasn’t there with me, I might have ended up crying about how I alone I felt (probably pretty fast into the vacation, honestly.)

Oh, the complete and utter restlessness that was (is) my life.

Early in the morning we walked towards the Ferry Building which is considered a gourmet market, with its fancy food shops and accompanying stores. We made our way down Market Street and grabbed a Chai Tea Latte from a street vending cart, which we sipped between breaths of the fresh morning air while I talked far too much about what I knew about SF and what it’s like to live there, or so I'd heard. (I was annoyed at myself for vomiting this information but I couldn’t seem to stop). 

We arrived at the market and took our time through the shops and contemplated bringing some products back with us: jams, sauces, olive oil. I couldn't help but daydream about how nice it would be to shop here and go home to my tiny and simple apartment. 

Cheryl Strayed
Moseying in and out of the stores, we arrived at a book shop called Book Passage. It has big windows facing the Bay Bridge and it is in the perfect spot to welcome people arriving off of the ferry boats. I was no stranger to this store and I was instantly overcome with the thrill of endless possibilities which I always feel when entering a bookstore, especially one as special as this.

Almost immediately, I saw a book by Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild, a book I loved so much that reading bad reviews on Goodreads caused my blood to boil. My heart rate picked up with anticipation as my hands ran across the soft pink cover. It was titled, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. 

I opened it and discovered that it was a collection of some of her work as an anonymous advice columnist for The Rumpus from years back. Knowing a bit about Strayed from Wild, I believed this book would give me advice I'd connect with. I flipped through the book and found someone who wrote:
            Dear Sugar,
            WTF, WTF, WTF?
 I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day.

“Oh my god!”  I exclaimed. Turning to Cheryl, I said, “This is exactly how I feel! I swear to you, I say these exact words to myself all the time.”

I showed Cheryl the text and she appeared unimpressed. Apparently she'd never experienced this level of confusion about life (or perhaps I'd just gotten way too intimate.) I skipped to the end of Sugar’s response in hopes of getting some pity from her, the word equivalent of a back rub. I wanted to be coddled. Instead, this is what Strayed had to say:

...The fuck was mine.
And the fuck is yours too, WTF. That question does not apply “ to everything every day.”
If it does, you’re wasting your life. If it does, you’re a lazy coward, and you are not a lazy coward.
Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it. 

I was disappointed. Offended. I guess I should have expected this from a woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. I closed the book. I didn’t want to have to figure out my life. I wanted someone to wallow in my misery with me. I was stuck and I was worried that I might never truly find peace.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Tiny Beautiful Things. though, and sporadically over the next few days I imagined myself reading the book.  I couldn’t stop thinking about Strayed's no bullshit answer. “The fuck is your life,” repeated over and over in my mind.  That answer was the hard truth that I needed to hear.

When I'm feeling helpless, I don’t like the hard truth. Not at first, but then I always come to appreciate it. Life is too short for nothing but unchallenging empathy. I can appreciate someone who gets to the point. So days later, with Steve in tow, I returned to that bookstore to  buy Tiny Beautiful Things

I immediately began reading it and in its pages, I felt like I'd found my home. I couldn’t read too much at once; the letters and answers are not for the lighthearted. If I left it for too long, though, it called out to me, and I would need some alone time with it.

Strayed's responses don’t guarantee a comfortable reading experience. She doesn’t pretend to have any simple solutions. But she is adamant that if she can find peace by following her heart, even when it’s terrifying, then so can the reader.

She hears the deeper stories inside the letters and answers the questions she thinks the letter writer is really trying to ask. She shares her own experiences so that the reader believes she is capable and trustworthy.  I am in awe of this woman, who through her own hardships and healing, became an influential advocate of healing for others.

She says: “Trusting yourself means living out what you already know to be true.” 

I agree. If I’ve learned anything, it's that joy doesn’t come from playing by the rules; it comes from doing the work to be authentic.

This book is still precious to me. The gentle and smooth sensation from touching it runs straight to my heart. Each time I pick it up, I run my fingers over the cover, preparing to embrace everything inside. Although the letters will not change, the answers will not change, and the core messages will not change, nothing from this book will become dated. Of this, I am sure. I have found strength in the words of these pages and I visit them frequently.

As for my WTF? Well, I’m asking better questions and doing my best to answer them.

P.S. Dear Sugar is now a podcast (watch here), and it is amazing!

Quick Brown Fox welcomes your book reviews and other book-related pieces and also reviews of movies or of whatever else catches your eye. Details hereRead how to write a book review (or any kind of review) here.

Naomi Ross will soon be Naomi Piggott but hasn't gotten around to officially changing her name yet. Her interest in writing brought her to one of Brian's classes in spring 2015. She currently lives in Mississauga with her husband, Steve, and two cats, Shaco and Eli. After she returns from San Francisco in spring 2016, she plans to adopt a dog. Her piece “Wounding Heals” has also been published on Quick Brown Fox (here). 

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Alton, Barrie, Bracebridge, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, St. John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Halton, Ingersoll, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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