Category Archives: Love Letter

An Open Love Letter to Cheryl Strayed

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image by Tammy Strobel

Cheryl Strayed is a master of the opening line. She doesn’t hesitate, but rather drops you directly into the dead center of the story. In her essay “The Love of My Life,” she starts with “The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week.” In her piece “Heroin/e” she begins with “When my mother died, I stripped her naked.” Her novel Torch begins simply “She ached.”

Eric first brought home a hardback copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild from the “Here & Now” collection at the library a few months after it was released. He loves stories of climbing Mount Everest or sailing around the world alone, so a book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail seemed like something he’d want to read. But it’s not really a book so much about hiking as it is a story about, as Cheryl says, “learning how to bear the unbearable,” a story about acceptance, her journey from lost to found. Eric really wanted to read about hiking the PCT so lost interest, didn’t finish the book, handing it to me one day saying, “It seems like the kind of book you’d like.”

You see, kind and gentle reader, I love memoir — coming of age stories, stories about finding oneself, narratives about becoming, about coming undone, about catalyst and transformation and salvation, about what it means to be human. These are my favorite kinds of books, the journey from lost to found. And my favorite ones are written by women who aren’t afraid to tell the truth, even when it doesn’t make them look good, who talk candidly and elegantly about the brilliance and the mess. Writers like Anne Lamott, Dani Shapiro, Caroline Knapp, Mary Karr, Laurie Wagner, Christina Rosalie, and Elizabeth Gilbert.

So Wild is exactly the kind of book I’d read, but I hadn’t read it yet. It was too popular. When that happens with a book, I find myself avoiding it. It’s something about being an introvert. When everyone is reading and talking about it, it feels too crowded somehow. I want my experience of it to be private. I want to be alone with it. It’s why it took me years to finally read Eat, Pray, Love. I had to wait until things got quiet.

But Eric had already checked out the book, and the “Here & Now” collection is limited to seven days so I started to read. Once I did, I could barely stand to put it down.

I confess, at first I was irritated by Cheryl’s story. The deeper she dug herself into the hole she was in, the more my discomfort grew. By the time her story got to her decision to have an abortion, I wanted to stop reading. I couldn’t stand to witness it, the self-destruction, the suffering she was generating on top of what she’d already been given. And yet, this was a book that I just couldn’t stop reading. I couldn’t help myself. I had to stay with it, had to “keep walking” right along with her until the end, no matter how painful.

Having lost so much to cancer myself made some parts of this book especially difficult to read. Many times I had to pause because I could no longer make out the words through my tears. This is the impact much of her written work has on me. I’ve given away 20+ copies of her book Tiny Beautiful Things in the past few years, always with the warning “don’t read this in public if you are uncomfortable letting people see you cry.”

One night when I was getting toward the end of Wild, I was reading in bed and Eric, who sometimes can’t sleep with the light from my book lamp, asked “can you be almost done?” I did something I never do: I got up and went out into the living room so I could keep reading. I had to finish. The memory is still fresh of being alone in the living room, sitting in the gold chair in the corner wrapped in a blanket, finishing the story, closing the book, and sobbing. That weird and wonderful mix of wishing so hard that none of those awful things ever had to happen to her, to any of us, but also wishing they’d happened to me so I’d have that story to tell.

Cheryl Strayed does not shy away from the truth. She tells the whole story, even the parts that might make her look bad. And yet, she doesn’t add things for the sake of drama. Telling readers about her heroin use isn’t done to shock, or to make the story more exciting, it’s there because it’s essential to the narrative — tender and terrible, beautiful and brutal. And when she’s telling the truth, she does it with an elegance that presents the truth in its full measure, all its brilliance and all its mess. She says things like “Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do,” (in her essay “Heroin/e”). I confess that the library copy of Wild I read was returned with corners of pages bent down, a sign of my need to mark the shiny places.

In the introduction to Tiny Beautiful Things, Steve Almond says, “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.” He’s talking specifically about what Cheryl did in that particular book, but I’d argue that’s what she does in everything she writes.

Cheryl Strayed is coming to Fort Collins on Thursday, and I’m going to see her. In preparation, I’ve been on a Cheryl Strayed bender these past few days — rereading her essays, watching videos, surfing her website, finally reading her novel, and considering what I might say to her if I get to speak to her directly that won’t make me sound like either a total idiot or a creepy stalker. If we were sitting down over a cup of coffee, it would be so much easier. I’d ask if she was an introvert or an extrovert, how she’s been coping with being away from her family and traveling so much, what was it like to meet Oprah, if she goes to the beach often and if so where exactly does she go, does she know where Waldport is, has she ever heard of Sublimity, why did she move to Oregon, how does she like it, does her family still own the 40 acres of land she grew up on, does she have pets, what are some of her favorite books or authors, what’s she working on next, and after telling this particular story in so many different forms does she feel like she’s fully processed it, is she done with it, what is her writing practice, her process like, aren’t marionberries wonderful, what do you love, what’s hardest for you, where does your struggle live now…all things that would make so much more sense in the context of a longer, more relaxed conversation.

So instead, I write her this open love letter. I’ll email her the link, but have no expectation that she’ll see it, come read it. And that’s totally okay. In the end, I suppose all I need to say to her if I ever get the chance, in order to tell her everything, is simply: Thank you for telling the truth, for making a map, shining a light where it’s dark. It helps me cultivate the courage to tell my truth, my story. I adore you.

An update: She read my post! She responded!

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Something Good

1. I’d Do Anything to Stop This Pain by Jennifer Gresham on Everyday Bright.

2. This quote: We’re in a giant car headed toward a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit. ~David Suzuki. This is Buddhist wisdom I’ve heard before, the idea that we we’ve all bought a ticket on a ship that’s sinking, that we are boarding a plane that’s guaranteed to crash, that this is the reality of life (death), but the additional wisdom here is that even knowing this, we spend our time on the dumbest things, like worrying what to pack or complaining about the snacks.

3. Biz Ladies: Part I — Your Blog Is Your Book This is very good news indeed.

4. Ayurveda at a Glance I am working on a guest post about meditation for Niight’s blog.

5. This wisdom from Tulku Thondup

The key is to make meditation a part of your life, like part of the fabric of a tapestry. Bring an attitude of enjoyment to your meditation, that helps tremendously. Also, bring the peaceful feelings of meditation into your daily activities. That is how to begin tasting the fruits of your efforts. When the healing of mind becomes a habit, our minds become like a great river. The river may not always appear to be moving. But if we look closely enough we will see how the water is slowly, slowly making its way to the sea.

And this:

Meditation is a way of training ourselves to develop a more peaceful mind. Everyone has different capabilities and needs when it comes to this training. We don’t want to push ourselves or be too forceful, but we also want to avoid being slack or lazy. Each of us needs to develop a sense of what’s best for us.

6. Love Letter to the World: Rachel W. Cole

7. Fiona Apple recently canceled her South American tour, because her sweet dog is dying. If you’ve ever loved a dog, lost a dog, the letter she wrote in explanation will break your heart. This comforted me, “she is coming close to the time where she will stop being a dog, and start instead to be part of everything” and this wrecked me:

I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time. I know that I will feel the most overwhelming knowledge of her, and of her life and of my love for her, in the last moments. I need to do my damnedest to be there for that. Because it will be the most beautiful, the most intense, the most enriching experience of life I’ve ever known. When she dies.

this boy is at my feet right now, doing his own dying–slowly but for certain, while I do my damnedest to be here for it

8. From the Daily Flame:

Why do you judge yourself when you feel tired? Why do you allow fatigue to turn into a story about how you’re not [something] enough? Have you ever thought that perhaps I speak to you through feelings of tiredness, that perhaps, you’re not hearing my whispers, telling you to slow down, and fatigue is the spell I slap on you to help you listen? If you’re tired today, what do you think I might be telling you? Listen up. I have a message for you…

And this one:

Sometimes the longings of your heart feel crazy, don’t they? You wonder how you can possibly trust desires that are so outlandish, impractical, out of control, fickle, and passion-laden. Yet what can you trust more than the stirrings of the heart? Stay there, with your heart wide open. This is where I live, not in your mind, but in the interior spaciousness of pure possibility and divine love.

9. This from Marianne Williamson: “Let there be a ceasefire in all our hearts. Let’s make peace with ourselves, our God, our past, and each other. Let’s all together declare peace on earth.” And this, “Now, in this moment, you are who you have always been and will always be. All spiritual practice — forgiveness, meditation and prayer — is for the purpose of training the mind to see through the illusions of a world that would convince you otherwise.”

10. Dear Sugar, The Rumpus Advice Column #90: 94 Ways of Saying Thank You

11. 15 Gifts You Can Give Yourself for Free from Marc and Angel Hack Life

12. This quote, by way of Lindsey on A Design So Vast:

…be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. ~Paul Harding

13. Emerging Icons: Demystifying the Process from Jen Lee

14. This quote: If you want to be happy, be. ~Leo Tolstoy

15. This quote: Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. ~ Henry James

16. This quote: Underneath it all, we are wild and we know it. ~Reggie Ray

17. This quote from Mary Gaitskill:

Writing is…. being able to take something whole and fiercely alive that exists inside you in some unknowable combination of thought, feeling, physicality, and spirit, and to then store it like a genie in tense, tiny black symbols on a calm white page. If the wrong reader comes across the words, they will remain just words. But for the right readers, your vision blooms off the page and is absorbed into their minds like smoke, where it will re-form, whole and alive, fully adapted to its new environment.

18. The Daily Routines of Famous Writers from Brain Pickings.

19. Recipes I want to try: Sweet Potato Biscuits, Apple Hand Pies, and Graham Crackers.

20. Shirley and Jenny: Two Elephants Reunited After More Than 20 Years, which I’ve seen before, but was reminded of this morning by Sas, and is why I drank tear flavored coffee.

21. Rachel Cole’s Holiday Gift Guide. I’m totally going to make some of the homemade surprise balls.

22. I may have posted this before, but it’s worth repeating: 55 gentle ways to take care of yourself when you’re busy busy busy

23. Every time I read Ken’s story, I am amazed at how similar it is to my own.

24. This sweet interview. “Joshua Littman, a 12-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome, interviews his mother, Sarah. Joshua’s unique questions and Sarah’s loving, unguarded answers reveal a beautiful relationship that reminds us of the best—and the most challenging—parts of being a parent.”

25. This quote from Geneen Roth:

Right here, this exact moment, is the doorway to the peace and the joy you want. No matter how much you ate in the last few days, no matter how much you did or didn’t do, can you stop your mind’s nattering? Can you, are you willing to, take in the fact that you have a body, arms, legs, eyes. That you can see, hear, touch, taste. Are you willing to break the trance of unworthiness right now?

26. PicMonkeyI love photo editing, adding quotes, and this site makes it so easy. I can’t wait to waste some serious time with this.

27. Don’t Just Create. Liberate., a great post from yogi Jonathan Fields.

28. Deck the Blog: Favorite Design Resources from Laura Simms on Scoutie Girl. This is going to be fun.

29. This quote: “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.” ~Thich
Nhat Hanh

30. No Shit from Whatever, Etc. Every woman who has ever cried in a dressing room, or wanted to when she looked in the mirror, or thought she would lose her mind shopping for a swimming suit or pair of jeans that fit needs to read this.