Thanks, Sugar

dear-sugar

“I know it’s a kick in the pants to hear that the problem is you, but it’s also fucking fantastic.  You are, after all, the only person you can change.” – Cheryl Strayed

A paradox about myself is that I detest receiving unsolicited advice, but I LOVE reading advice columns. 

I find that, 90% of the time, people who give advice are doing it more for their benefit than for the sake of their listener.**  After all, it’s fun to give advice.  It’s satisfying to help people, it’s enjoyable to tell our stories, and it’s gratifying to be able to share the wisdom and knowledge that we’ve gained throughout the years with a young, impressionable mind.  The situations we experience in life are often messy and uncomfortable, but when reflecting back on them with the perspective that only time can give, we can clean them up and make sense of them.  How thrilling it is to have this perspective and be able to share it with others!  Baz Luhrman’s spoken word song “Everyone’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” aptly sums up my understanding of the mindset of advice-givers: “Advice is a form of nostalgia; dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

I understand the impulse to give advice, but that doesn’t mean that I relish the experience of receiving said advice, unless I particularly requested it. This is why it’s so odd that advice columns are the first ones I turn to in magazines. Whether the topic is etiquette, relationships, or organizing, I devour advice columns.  I both love the anonymous questions and the thoughtful responses.  I am eager to get a sense of what other people struggle with, and I derive much satisfaction from figuring out how I can integrate the advice bestowed upon letter-writers into my own life. 

My affinity for advice columns made me very, very excited to pick up Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.  The book is a collection of the once-anonymous advice columnist Dear Sugar’s letters to countless readers and implorers, originally published on The Rumpus.  I laughed and cried my way through this tender, witty, honest, humble and hopeful mine of letters, and now I’m recommending it to every other person I meet.

One of the things I liked best about Dear Sugar is Strayed’s marvelous capacity to both lovingly accept the imperfections of the people writing to her and to confidently expect more from them.  We have the capacity to choose how we act in any given situation, Strayed extols again and again, and the choices we make determine our destiny.  Life is hard and it’s understandable that sometimes we make shitty decisions and hurt the people we love (and don’t love).  Sometimes we royally mess up.  But messing up and making mistakes doesn’t destine us for failure, and we all have the power to become better people, one choice at a time.

“We do not have the right to feel helpless…we must help ourselves…After destiny has delivered what it delivers, we are responsible for our lives.” – Cheryl Strayed

** For the record, I just made that 90% figure up.  I would wager that most advice-givers believe they are offering it for the sake of their listener, but I would also wager that the act of giving advice is more pleasurable than the act of receiving…at least for me; although, also for the record, I do frequently solicit advice from a few trusted individuals, including my husband, my parents, close friends, and a beloved mentors, but receiving advice when having asked for it is an entirely different experience than being harangued with it passively. 

What I Read This Summer

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I was once very impressed when a former (beloved) supervisor of mine told me that he has a cyclical system for reading books, rotating through the genres: history, theory, fiction, biography.  Inspired, I decided that I would develop a system as well, though I had very little interest in reading books about history, and one in four biography seemed like a bit much.  I’m interested in “theory” (which, perhaps embarrassingly, I translate to broadly mean anything in the psychology/pop-science/self-help/case-study/spirituality umbrella) but I typically like to read theory alongside something lighter…namely, a novel or collection of short stories.

Taking all of this into consideration, the system that I developed was much less specific than my supervisor’s: I would try to balance fiction and non-fiction.  This framework turned out to be less of a system than a reflection of what I was already doing, because I have yet to consciously choose fiction/non-fiction based on what I last read…but still, looking back on what I read this summer, I’m evenly split.  And summer is an indication of my true reading tastes, because I give myself lots of freedom in the summer to read whatever sounds interesting in the moment of my library perusing, and I have less frequent reading group meetings in the summer than otherwise, so I’m determining a larger extent of my reading choices.

So, un-persuaded by other book group member’s requests, or by my conscience urging me to read something “deeper,” “more educational” or “useful for work,” here is what I read this summer:

  • My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
  • Object Lessons, Anna Quindlen
  • Tiny, Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed
  • French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano
  • The Nest, Cynthia Sweeney
  • When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams (Girlfriends Book Club)
  • The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison (Athenaeum Reading Group)
  • The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (Audio Book)
  • Heartburn, Nora Ephron

My favorite non-fiction: Tiny, Beautiful Things.  My favorite fiction: The Goldfinch.  I will highly recommend TBT to anyone who isn’t offended by talk of sex and drugs, and who isn’t afraid to feel deeply and likely shed some tears.  Likewise, I highly recommend The Goldfinch, though with caveats: it’s dark, it’s intense, and it’s troubling.  I finished it almost two weeks ago, and still think about it on probably a daily basis.  If you are willing to be consumed by it, though, it’s a gorgeous and captivating story.

Labor Day Musings

It’s Labor Day, marking the end of summer and the beginning of fall, as far as I’m concerned.  And also as far as I’m concerned, it’s been the perfect weekend for this transition.  Saturday was warm and sunny, and Caleb and I spent the day in Keene, New Hampshire, soaking in one last summer day trip.  We toured the Horatio Colony Museum (a fantastic tour! Engaging, informative, private, and free!), had a delicious patio lunch at Stage, walked through the town’s weekly Farmers’ Market,  happened upon a special weekend art fair, went to Mass at the local Catholic church, and meandered through Keene State College (a beautiful campus, and, interestingly, one of the few liberal arts state schools).  Today, on the other hand, has felt perfectly autumnal — cool, windy and grey — and I’ve spent the day inside drinking coffee, writing, reading, and organizing my life (cleaning out my desk and catching up on e-mails, mostly; it’s amazing how much inner order can come from having order in these two realms).

I love it when time and circumstances line up in this way, creating a special kind of space for transition and for paying attention to time (the passing of it and the looking towards it).  It helps me to give thanks for the past, honor the present, and look forward to the future, and to overall cherish the sacredness of life.

Reflecting on the past and setting intentions for the future help me to cherish the sacredness of life, as well.  And so now, to reflect on my summer and the goals that I set for it…

Honoring Summer

  • Take a day trip to a new location each week that doesn’t involve some other sort of travel
    • There were many trips, day and otherwise, this summer.  In a whirlwind of the first weekend of June, we went to Port Clinton, OH to see Aunt Barb, to Cleveland for a dear college friend’s wedding, and to Columbus for our precious niece’s Baptism.  Later in June we spent a glorious week in Kiawah with Caleb’s family (but first, a weekend in Charleston) and a special long weekend in Shady Grove for my sister’s pre-wedding festivities.  We went to Bristol, Little Compton, Concord and Keene, and spent several individual days or parts of days in Boston seeing friends (and we hosted several different friends in Providence).  And we spent a stellar seven days hiking in the Sierra Nevadas, with our very best of friends (cousins and siblings).  We packed the summer with activity.hike
  • Eat/drink on the deck/patio of a new (to us) restaurant each non-travelling week
    • There was no shortage of good food this summer.  Enough said.  
  • Talk to an old friend on the phone/facetime/skype every week
    • Several weeks ago, I modified this goal to say that if, in the last three weeks of summer, I caught up with five old friends, I would call the goal complete.  And that I did!  
  • Write one blog post each week
    • I skimped on this goal these past few weeks, but feel satisfied with the time I spent writing for other, non-blog endeavors, so no hard feelings on this one.
  • Complete a few projects that have been on my list for ages:
    • Create a photo wall to display recently taken pictures
      • Yes!Magnet wall
    • Complete a writing project
      • Written!  Submitted!  Accepted???  I hope!  But, as I know all too well, I can’t control outcomes, only inputs.  So, I’ve done what I can and am letting go of the rest.
    • Buy and fill in a birthday calendar
      • Yes!
    • Hang artwork that has accumulated
      • Yes!Gallery Wall
    • Learn how to use Caleb’s camera
      • Yes!  …with lots of practice needed, of course.  And what better time and place for practice than in a New England autumn?!