There are some books that are pit stops. You read a book once, you enjoy it (or not), and then you move on very quickly. Books like these do not leave an impression, but are necessary in their own right. Pit stop books, as I call them, let you breathe. Most times, you enjoy them in the moment. They remind you the pleasure of leisure reading – soufflé light, butter soft.
Then there are other books which are pilgrimages. Books that you have to come back to again, and again, where you lie at the altar of their words and let the wisdom seep into different parts of your soul. Books like these are treasure chests – you discover something new with each re-read, you finish the book with gratitude for all that you have gained, and then you do it all over again.
I was introduced to Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar many years ago, when I had just returned home from living abroad for several years, struggling with displacement and loneliness and heartache. I was desperate for a good book – a book that I could hold on to, to keep me adrift. I had never heard of Strayed before the time and did not know that she was revered as one of the best advice columnists of all time.
Not that I knew much about advice columns; the few that I had read as while skimming through magazines had never made much of an impression on me. They were usually trite, spilling over with pandering and simpering language. I never had patience for such writing.
Needless to say, I was very hesitant to start reading the book and spent far longer than necessary convincing myself to get on with it. After all, if I did not like the book, I could always move on to another one. So I forced myself to give the book a chance. I read it.
It has been eight years since.
I have read Tiny Beautiful Things every single year since then, making a pilgrimage out of my annual read. Each reading allows me to find something new to ponder over, forces me to dig a little deeper into myself to understand why something that did not resonate before, resonated then.
I lay myself at the altar of its knowledge, and I receive.
Recently, I had a very long textual conversation with my best friend, S.
I had seen something online, someone’s house tour, that had triggered in me an unnecessarily judgemental and angry reaction. I had shared the video with my friend S, and in the way that is true of our friendship, we began to unpeg why I felt so strongly about something that was frankly, very inconsequential in my life.
I knew my reaction was so visceral because I had recognised something of myself in the individual who had posted the video. I asked S, How desperate must you be for attention that you need to put out something like this to feel like you’ve made your mark in this world? Surely, there must be greater meaning to this life.
I was not sure whether I was referring to someone else, or myself.
S replied, Perhaps that is the eternal struggle of life – how do you find meaning in the meaningless?
While listening to S’s voice note, I was watching soft snow flurries through my bedroom window.
I remembered a strange trivia fact – that each snow crystal was said to have a shape unique to itself. And yet, this uniqueness was never quite visible to the naked human eye – not when they fell in clumps, not when they melted into nothingness with the warmer weather.
I wondered at the similarities between a human’s existence and a snowflake – so special, so beautiful, and yet, only as meaningful for the brief time that each graced this Earth. And then –
Strayed does not directly address this idea in her letters, but this thread runs through her writing like a steady, pulsing in her heartbeat. Sweetpeas, she writes, full of grace, and compassion:
“…[c]ultivate an understanding of a bunch of other things that the best, sanest people on the planet know: that life is long, that people both change and remain the same, that every last one of us will need to fuck up and be forgiven, that we’re all just walking and walking and walking and trying to find our way, that all roads lead eventually to the mountaintop.”
Strayed started writing her advice columns as Dear Sugar on The Rumpus. The best of her replies to the letters she received make up the anthology that is Tiny Beautiful Things.
In the introduction to the edition that I own, Steve Almond sums up the magic of Strayed’s writing: “With great patience and eloquence, she assures her readers that within the chaos of our shame and disappointment and rage there is meaning, and within that meaning is the possibility of rescue.”
There it is again – the idea of finding meaning in the muck of everyday, in the grey complicated corners of our hearts and minds, in this life, over and over.
“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”
I never knew my grandfather.
He was my mother’s father, and he passed many years before I was born. What I know of him, I know through stories – stories of a tall kind man, with gentle eyes, who worked hard, was an excellent chef, and loved his wife and children above all else.
I went to my late grandfather’s grave for the first time in my life just before I left Singapore.
The visit to the graveyard remains clear in my mind, even months after.
I remember the caretaker smiling at me and speaking to me in a hodgepodge of Malay and Hokkien that I did not understand. I remember looking around the graveyard in silence, reading the epitaphs that accompanied pictures of men and women from generations gone. I remember sounding out their names in my mouth, exploring the shapes they made and saying a prayer for peace. I remember standing by where my grandfather was buried, my feet sinking into the soil, inhaling the smell of incense that wafted across the graveyard – we were not the only family that day that had come to pay our respects to our ancestors. I remember watching my mother who was perspiring profusely – the sun was blazing – her face quiet and stoic, grief slipping through her pores in whispers I only caught because so keen was I in looking for them.
I have only known my mother as the daughter who lost her father at a really young age. A mother, who is a daughter who was shaped by a grief so profound, some of that grief leaked into her own daughter’s heart even before she was born.
I have carried my mother’s grief for most of my adult life.
I have never found the words console my mother’s loss – partly from the lack of understanding of the extent of her emotion, but more so because in the face of her grief that lives on, I am small and helpless.
Reading Strayed’s reply to a letter from a father who could not get over the sorrow of his son’s loss was almost like a benediction:
“The kindest and most meaningful thing anyone ever says to me is: Your mother would be proud of you. Finding a way in my grief to become the woman who my mother raised me to be is the most important way I have honoured my mother. It has been the greatest salve to my sorrow. The strange and painful truth is that I am a better person because I lost my mom young. When you say you experience my writing as sacred, what you are touching is the divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place….It showed me shades and hues I couldn’t have otherwise seen. It required me to suffer. It compelled me to reach.”
Strayed understands grief well. She has written over and over again, about the loss of her own mother, about how that experience shaped her, about how she would always be the daughter who lost her mother too soon, and about how that one singular act veered her life off course. She shares her own experiences unabashedly, knowing that in sharing, there is healing:
“Small things such as this have saved me: how much I love my mother—even after all these years. How powerfully I carry her within me. My grief is tremendous but my love is bigger. So is yours. You are not grieving your son’s death because his death was ugly and unfair. You’re grieving it because you loved him truly. The beauty in that is greater than the bitterness of his death.”
And so I dedicate this exploration to my own mother, who reads everything I write, who has grappled with her grief for all of her life – Let the beauty of your love be greater than the sadness of your father’s death.
Reading is for me many things, but most importantly, it is a space where I recognise myself in others. This is a sweet relief, this thrumming in my veins when I read words that echo sentiments and feelings I do not quite know how to articulate.
Reading Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things is an annual homecoming, a pilgrimage that I embark on for my heart and mind, so that as I peel back my own layers and wade deeper into the magic of her words, I walk, and walk, till I arrive again, into myself.
“It is impossible for you to go on as you were before, so you must go on as you never have.”