Fall 2017 Reading

Regardless of the official start dates of the four seasons, I’m one to consider December 1st the beginning of Winter, March 1st the start of Spring, June 1st the commencement of summer and September 1st the onset of Fall.  My mindset flips with the calendar page, and those first few weeks of the transition months are often the ones that feel most steeped in the glory of the new season. 

The magical swirl of winter is definitely in the air within our home, town, and the world-as-I-know-it-through-Instagram.  With twinkling lights on trees and temperatures that require a pom-pom hat, I’m ready to start a new column in my reading journal for Winter 2017/2018 Books.  But before then, a quick look back on what I read this Fall:

Fiction

The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Susan Perabo

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, Bette Bao Lord

Non-Fiction

Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay

Presence, Amy Cuddy

White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, Joan Weber

I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, Nora Ephron

Radical Spirit, Joan Chittister

I’d recommend all of my fall reads, actually.  A few thoughts:

The Fall of Lisa Bellow (a book club read) is forgettable but was enjoyable in the moment, in the page-turning way any book laced with mystery is. 

The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson was a re-read from my childhood and had me in tears with the poignancy that I’m sure was lost on my eight-year-old self.  Reading it also brought back cozy memories of having it read to me by my mom as I waited for the school bus. 

Presence left me with some definitive take-aways — posture matters! — and I seriously am noticing the effect that sitting up straighter, speaking more slowly, and keeping my arms uncrossed has on my feelings of empowerment in work settings. 

I read White Working Class as part of my effort to understand how and why President Trump was elected (along with Plutocracy, Hillbilly Elegy, and Atlas Shrugged) and, at the risk of sounding totally heavy-handed, this short little book transformed my thinking by helping me see how class clueless I am.  In the way great books, people and programs do, it opened me up to the other and helped me see how I am part of the problem and what I need to change about myself.  I especially recommend this book for all people in my socio-political-age demorgraphic. 

I laughed my head off through I Feel Bad About My Neck, and for added reading pleasure, I’d suggest listening to the audio book, which is read by the author.  She knows just when to pause and crescendo for all the extra effect. 

Radical Spirit has me on a Joan Chittister kick.  The book is a practical guide in which Chittister walks her readers through the Rule of St. Benedict’s chapter on humility.  What I appreciated most about the book is that Chittister doesn’t shy away from suggesting active lifestyle changes that probably most readers need to make to live more humbly, authentically and freely. 

Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

Add a Time Constraint

In Option B, Sheryl Sandberg gives a helpful piece of advice to the friends, family members, co-workers and acquaintances of a person who is facing some form of adversity, whether it be grieving the loss of a loved one, struggling with unemployment, or fighting a bad diagnosis. 

When you ask how the person is doing, add a time constraint.  How are you feeling, right now?  How are you coping, today?  How are you doing, this moment?

Sandberg explains that the time constraint acknowledges that a person is going through something hard and living from moment to moment.  “How are you doing today” is a less generic question (let’s face it, how many times a day to we say to people, from close friends to near strangers, “how are you?”) and therefore it doesn’t presuppose a generic answer (“I’m fine.”). It’s a more spacious question, inviting an honest response, which makes it a kinder question, too. 

I think “add a time constraint” is a really sound piece of advice, and one that stretches beyond interacting with grieving or otherwise struggling individuals.  It also helps me to consider my perennial quest for self-improvement, my preferences, my goals, and my ability to find joy in the present moment.

For an example, when I’m occasionally asked a question like “What are your career goals” or “What are you favorite books” I draw a complete and total blank.  These questions are overwhelming, and I don’t know where to begin answering them.  However, if someone asks me “What’s a goal that you have in your professional life right now,” or “What’s the best book you’ve read recently,” I leap on the opportunity to reflect on my current situation and I am able to provide a thoughtful answer. 

I firmly believe that examining our lives and reflecting on our experiences makes for a richer and more meaningful existence.  Reflecting helps us cultivate gratitude for what’s good in our lives and make change where change is needed to improve our lives.  It helps us grapple with our challenges and rejoice in our successes. 

I also firmly believe that we need to set ourselves up to do the things that are good for us — like reflecting.  If something is too hard, we’ll put it off.  If a task is too overwhelming, we won’t begin.  Adding time constraints to reflective questions can help us examine where we are, in the moment. 

Photo by Sonja Langford on Unsplash

3 Things I’ve Learned From Nora Ephron Recently

A high school friend got married the weekend before last, which was the perfect excuse for me to drive to my hometown of Shady Grove for a few days.  I love everything about going home, from sleeping in the twin bed of my childhood to eating my dad’s ever-perfecting sourdough toast for breakfast, to partaking in miscellaneous projects with my parents (and siblings, if they are home), to the now familiar drive from Providence to south-central Pennsylvania. 

There are many times when I wish I lived closer to Shady Grove because proximity would enable me to enjoy all the benefits of home – particularly quality time with my family of origin —more often than I currently do, but taken in and of itself, I don’t mind the driving distance.  It’s actually an aspect of going home to which I look forward.  With a thermos of coffee, a stack of audio books, the heat turned up, and a queue of podcasts, I find the drive comforting, cozy and entertaining. 

On this most recent drive, I listened to the second half of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and an episode of each of my favorite podcasts (Happier and Jesuitical) on the way to Shady Grove, and a few more podcast episodes and Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman on the way back to Providence. 

It would be an understatement to say that my return drive to Rhode Island was enjoyable.  I loved every single word of Ephron’s collection of essays.  She’s a witty and hysterical writer, one of the funniest I’ve encountered, and the audio version of her book was made even better by the fact that it was read by Queen Nora herself.  Naturally, she knew just which words to emphasize, where to whisper and when to pause dramatically.

I’m on a Nora Ephron kick, now, and I’m learning things in addition to laughing my head off.  Here are three lessons I’m taking away from her fantastic work:

1). The dinner party rule of four: in her essay “Serial Monogamy: A Memoir,” Ephron chronicles the cookbooks and chefs who influenced her personal cooking and hosting style, and she pays special tribute to Lee Bailey.  She writes:

The most important thing that I learned from Lee was something I call the Rule of Four. Most people serve three things for dinner — some sort of meat, some sort of starch, and some sort of vegetable — but Lee always served four. And the fourth thing was always unexpected, like those crab apples. A casserole of lima beans and pears cooked for hours with brown sugar and molasses. Peaches with cayenne pepper. Sliced tomatoes with honey. Biscuits. Savory bread pudding. Spoon bread. Whatever it was, that fourth thing seemed to have an almost magical effect on the eating process. You never got tired of the food because there was always another taste on the plate that seemed simultaneously to match it and contradict it. You could go from taste to taste; you could mix a little of this with a little of that. And when you finished eating, you always wanted more, so that you could go from taste to taste all over again.

There’s something so charming about this Rule, isn’t there?  It’s both simple and playful, and – unlike a complicated recipe or an elegant environment – easy for someone like me to adopt. 

2). The worst possible thing could turn out not to be the worst possible thing:  In You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan’s character Kathleen is devastated when the corporate chain Fox Books drives her small children’s bookstore – The Shop Around the Corner – out of business.  Why wouldn’t she be?  Being forced to close doors is every small business owner’s worst nightmare.  But closing these doors ends up opening a different set of doors for Kathleen.  No, I’m not talking about the relationship she develops with Mr. Fox himself; she begins writing children’s books.  This turn of events might be high on the cheesiness scale, but I do think it illustrates a true point: we don’t know what life holds, and staying hopeful and open in the face of adversity could lead to new and exciting opportunities.

3). The familiar is funny and interesting: “Write what you know” is an age old piece of advice that probably anyone who has ever written anything has heard.  Cliche as the advice may be, Nora Ephron proves that it’s sound.  She writes about the contents of her purse, her apartment building, her love-hate relationship with beauty products, parenting and food.  There is nothing – absolutely nothing – exceptional about these topics, but Ephron succeeds in crafting superb essays about them because she pays close attention to the details, and because she is so honest and open.  This is a realization worth keeping in mind, for both writing endeavors and being a good conversationalist!

Photo by Daniela Cuevas on Unsplash

Entitlement to be yourself

Occasionally I will read a piece and think “these words were written for ME.”  I felt that way about Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. 

Backed by research, personal stories, and interviews, Cain argues that modern western culture undervalues and misunderstands introverts. But her book isn’t a rail against western culture so much as it is a rally for introverts.  She holds a magnifying glass up to the personality and lifestyle of introverts, offers a compelling description of the gifts introverts have to offer in the home, workplace, and community, and suggests strategies for introverts to employ in order to thrive in a talkative world.

In Cain’s introduction, she writes, “If there is only one insight you take away from this book, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself.”  I certainly finished the book with a greater understanding and acceptance of myself, and here are a few reasons why:

  1. Cain normalizes the fear of public speaking.  Not only did the feelings of dread that I always experience before giving presentations, making announcements from the pulpit or even introducing other speakers used to make me miserable in and of themselves, they also sparked further feelings of guilt and embarrassment.  I would think, “Speaking in front of others is a normal, adult thing to do; feeling this anxious is immature and unreasonable.”  By sharing her experiences of not being able to sleep before a big presentation, and of having to practice for hours and hours before feeling comfortable with the content for a talk, Cain helped me to see that failing to relish public performance is not a reflection of my maturity, ability, or mental health (or lack thereof, in each of those categories).  It’s just an aspect of my personality type. 
  2. While encouraging me to accept the fact that I prefer being out of the spotlight, Cain also helped me see that I’m capable of being in the spotlight.  She writes about Free Trait Theory, the proposition that we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits — introversion, for example — but we can and do act out of character in the service of “core personal projects.”  In other words, “introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.”  The reminder that I can do things (and can do them well!) that I don’t necessarily want to do is empowering.  I may just need extra practice, training and support throughout the process. 
  3. Cain gives introverts permission to fortify themselves to operate in an extroverted world with restorative practices and behaviors in their homes and personal lives.  As she suggests to introverts that stepping out of our comfort zone in order to advance “core personal projects” will bring us satisfaction in the long term, she also warns us that it will be challenging and tiring at times.  She reminds introverts to be intentional with where and when we choose to stretch ourselves, and advises that we allow ourselves to lean into our introversion in all other circumstances.  My favorite example that she offers: “Cross the street to avoid making aimless chitchat with random acquaintances.”  This is something that I have done many times, and have always felt a little bit funny about.  Cain validated a behavior that helps me, and I really appreciated that. 
  4. Cain highlights the qualities of introverts that make them valuable members of the workforce, political scene and humanitarian realm.  While noting that modern culture is enamored with extroverted qualities such as charismatic leadership and outgoing sense of humor, Can reminders her readers that there are other ways to lead and have an impact.  She writes of the less glamorous qualities of persistence and reflectiveness that I identify with (much more than charisma and sense of humor!) and emphasizes that introverts can use these qualities to share ideas powerfully, if quietly.  She writes, “The trick for introverts is to honor their own styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms.” 

 

Photo by Ryan Riggins on Unsplash

Broadcasting/Narrowcasting: Summer Reading

I once caught the end of an NPR interview in which the speaker commented that the news is no longer broadcasted, but is instead narrowcasted.  He explained that news’ sites, shows and programs do not offer a breadth of stories and perspectives that is representative of the world in which we live, that their content is narrowed to reflect the ideas, leanings and priorities of a particular set of hosts and listeners. 

While this interviewee certainly wasn’t the first person to claim that the media is biased, I hadn’t heard the broadcast/narrowcast turn-of-phrase before, and his word-choice struck a chord with me.  I can’t remember the name of the interviewee or the interviewer, let alone the broader topic of their conversation, but this idea grabbed my attention because I see it at play within my life.    

It concerns me that, like a particular channel or anchor, I narrowcast the input of stories — and therefore, the output of opinions, ideas and beliefs — within my life.  For work and leisure, I read and listen to not only a certain type of news and theology (read: liberal), but literature and even fluff (i.e. lifestyle blogs) as well.  I typically don’t expose myself to content with which I fundamentally disagree.

Noticing this inclination, I decided to make a concerted effort to read one book (starting small and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good!) this summer that is off my usual beaten path.  I chose Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, because it’s one of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s favorite books, and Ryan isn’t the first person I’d ordinarily go to for reading recommendations.  Additionally, Ayn Rand is one of those names that comes up again and again, and I like the idea of being well-rounded and able to understand references made to her work. 

A few observations about Rand and Atlas Shrugged:

It’s a good thing I borrowed Atlas Shrugged on my kindle, because I probably wouldn’t have persisted in cracking it open if I had known that it is 1,168 pages. 

It was really hard to get through the first half of the novel, but starting at about 60% on my kindle progress report, I found myself actually enjoying the book.  There is something to be said for a riveting plot line and likable-ish characters.   

Rand does not convince me that laissez faire capitalism is the golden ideal, mostly because I can’t get behind the premise that “good people” will rise to the top if they work hard enough.  In a culture plagued by systemic racism, sexism and xenophobia, I don’t subscribe to the myth of meritocracy.  But by offering me a glimpse of the world through the lens of a laissez faire capitalist, Rand does help me to understand why so many politically conservative individuals feel the way they feel (and disdain public assistance programs and government imposed business regulations). 

I think it comes down to whom a person is willing to extend the benefit of the doubt. 

Rand (and her type) gives the benefit of the doubt to the capitalists, assuming that work ethic and integrity enable them to make profit; therefore, they should be able to enjoy the full fruits of their labor.  I give the benefit of the doubt to all the men and women whom I believe are at their core as capable and intelligent as the capitalist, but through the harsh cycles of poverty and oppression, have not been granted the opportunities and privileges to rise and thrive.  Ultimately, we’re going to “side with” the people to whom we give the benefit of the doubt, and support policies and laws that support them.  For Rand, this is the capitalist; for me, this is the vulnerable.

In short, Atlas Shrugged wasn’t the total chore to read that I thought it might be, and it did broaden my perspective (which is what I hoped it would do; I didn’t expect conversion).  I also found some common ground with Rand, which came as a surprise to me.  We both distrust the “men is Washington” (her chosen delineation for politicians) who make the decisions and laws that impact both the individuals benefitting from capitalism, and those benefitting from public assistance.  I’m not rushing to borrow Fountainhead but I’m glad I challenged myself to step outside my ordinary reading zone and try something new. 

Other Books That I Read This Summer

Sisterland: A Novel, Curtis Sittenfeld

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo

The Book that Matters Most, Ann Hood

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain

The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy

Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

Up a Road Slowly, Irene Hunt

Photo by James Barker on Unsplash

A Habited Mindset

Charles Duhigg’s 2012 examination of habits, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business builds around the idea of the habit loop: a cue instigates a routine which ends with a reward.  The reward is satisfying, so we crave it, making us susceptible in the future to the cue that instigated the routine in the first place.  This pattern explains numerous behaviors that any of us engage in on a daily basis, behaviors that were once the result of deliberate choices, but are now so engrained in us that we’ve ceased thinking about them and simply do them. 

One of the central arguments of the book is what Duhigg refers to as the golden rule of habit change:  “You can never truly extinguish bad habits,” he writes.  “Rather, to change the habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.  That’s the rule.  If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit.  Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same” (62).

I found Duhigg’s thesis convincing and interesting, but surprisingly unhelpful.  My assessment is that the book would be most impactful for readers who have several habits that they are hoping to change, and I realized as I read the book that I don’t necessarily have bad habits.  I certainly engage in unfortunate behaviors, but they aren’t habits so much as they are character flaws.  For an example, one of my least favorite things about myself is my capacity to get easily annoyed.  This is more of a personality trait than a habit, and while I believe it can be tempered with effort, it’s not the kind of effort (changing a routine) that Duhigg’s book is about. 

What I did find extremely helpful in The Power of Habit was this brief little section toward the end of the book in which Duhigg writes about William James.  James, an early 20th century psychiatrist whose writings are now pillars in the canon of literature on habits, had a rough start professionally and emotionally.  In his early thirties, he felt so unaccomplished and unsure of his place in the world that he contemplated suicide.  But then, according to Duhigg, he made a decision.

“Before doing anything rash, he would conduct a yearlong experiment.  He would spend twelve months believing that he had control over himself and his destiny, that he could become better, that he had the free will to change.  There was no proof that it was true.  But he would free himself to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that change was possible.  “I think yesterday was a crisis in my life,” he wrote in his diary.  Regarding his ability to change, “I will assume for the present — until the next year — that it is no illusion.  My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” (272)

Duhigg tells this story to illustrate the point that “the will to believe” is the most important ingredient in creating the belief in change, and that with belief in the possibility of change, change is possible.  (James is elsewhere quoted as stating, “Actions seem to follow feeling, but really actions and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”) We can choose to adopt the habits/practices/ways-of-being of successful people, and if we believe that these actions will make us successful, likely they will have that effect.

This story spoke to me because it feels remarkably applicable to my life right now, in the form of my career.  I’ve second-guessed myself a lot in my job over the past two years and felt an overall lack of sureness when making decisions and coordinating events.  I worry that while some people will appreciate the program I’ve created, others won’t be happy with it, and still many others won’t even attend.  I worry that people think I’m not good at my job, and that I shouldn’t have been hired for it.  I worry that I’m going to disappoint people.  In short, I worry a lot.  And I realize that through all of my worrying, I’ve been sabotaging my ability to do my best work.  Worry has held me back from being enthusiastic, getting a wide variety of folks on board, and taking risks. 

But I can stop worrying.  Maybe not completely, but at least somewhat. 

Like William James, I am going to assume for the next year that I have the ability to change — and the ability to thrive — in my professional life.  I will continue to seek advice and input from mentors and the people I work with, but I’m going to stop second-guessing every decision I make.  I’m going to feel free to try knew things, knowing that, if they don’t work well, I can do them differently the next time.  I’m going to trust my vision of faith formation and put 100% of my work time effort into creating meaningful, well researched programming, but I’m not going to judge myself harshly if it isn’t well-attended, or if someone doesn’t like it. 

I’m going to get in the habit of thinking more positively about my work, and I’m going to get in the habit of acting accordingly.

Holiday Reading

I was like a kid in a candy shop with my Christmas holiday reading — delighted, and a tad bit hyper-active. I bounced back and forth between three winners: Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley, David Brooks’ The Road to Character, and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.

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Since its recent publication, I had been saving Miller’s Valley, and, much as I enjoyed it, I also regretted finishing it.  For me, having an unread Anna Quindlen novel is akin to possessing a get-out-of-jail-free card.  It’s comforting to know that when hard-times come I have an almost-guaranteed good read on the shelf…all I can say is that my girl Anna better be hard at work on her next novel and taking good care of her health. 

The Road to Character is my kind of non-fiction: interesting, well-researched, digest-able, and relevant.  I don’t read anything that I think is entirely irrelevant (is anything entirely irrelevant?), but hey, a biography of Marcel Proust is uncontestedly less applicable to my life than the insights of David Brooks. What I particularly appreciate about Brooks is his ability to, on top of presenting thought-provoking information, instigate self-reflection.  I certainly wouldn’t consider his non-fiction “self-help,” but it prods me to examine my way of being in the world.

And Zadie Smith?  Well, she’s just flawless.  Swing Time includes almost all of my favorite attributes of R.F.P.P: it’s a coming-of-age story meets family drama meets tale of female friendship.  On top of that, it’s an “expand your worldview” kind of novel, giving me the opportunity to look at the world from a new perspective. 

I would highly recommend all three of these books. 

Expanding my worldview

plutocratsI try to balance reading fiction and non-fiction, which for a long time gave me the false impression that I am a well-rounded reader.  It recently became apparent to me, however, that I have not, in fact, exposed myself to a variety of genres and ideas.  This conclusion came to me as I made my way through business journalist Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats, a 2012 examination of the rise of the new global super-rich and the fall of everyone else.  This book was in such contrast to the non-fiction I typically read — self-help, spirituality and psychology — that it threw into light how narrowly focused my taste in non-fiction is. (Thanks to my girlfriends’ book group, which primarily reads novels and short stories, I am exposed to a wider variety of fiction).

Reading something new definitely had its perks.  I learned all sorts of new words and phrases (plutocrat and oligarchs and BRICs and The Middle Kingdom), statistics (the top .01% of earners in the U.S. make an average annual income of 23,846,950, whereas the bottom 90% make an average income of $29,840 — youch!) and concepts (super-wealth used to come primarily from family inheritance/land renting; now… not so much… “In 1916 the richest 1 percent of Americans received only one-fifth of their income from paid work; in 2004, that figure had risen threefold, to 60 percent”) that I’m simply not exposed to in my day-to-day.  Even more importantly, I was challenged into new ways of thinking… or, at the least, to question some of my taken-for-granted assumptions.  Read more

R.F.P.P.

reading

Often, the books I choose to write about are the ones that make me think, the ones with nuggets of wisdom that I want to process more deeply (which writing helps me to do), the ones with beautiful sentences that I want to play with — to hold up to the light to get a better look — or the ones that resonate with my life in a personal way that feels worth commenting about.  These are the books that expand my worldview, promote self-awareness and growth, and add beauty to my days, and I write about these books because I want to distill the ways in which they enhance my life.

But there’s also something to be said for the books that aren’t especially deep or moving (or maybe they are) but are just plain fun to read, the books that I can’t put down (and that I am unable to stop thinking about when work, meals, social obligations, and civility to the people with whom I live demand that I put them down), the books with characters and plot that induce an almost tangible pleasure.  These are the ice-cream cones of literature: yummy, addictive, and easily absorbed.   

After reading The Goldfinch (which was so, so, so, so good, but also emotionally draining and exhausting to digest — to continue the culinary metaphor, we’ll call it kale), I especially craved readable ice cream.  And so I’ve been on Read For Pure Pleasure (R.F.P.P.) kick. 

  • I’m listening to the Harry Potter series on CD during my commute.  What a treat to revisit these books that are so inextricably woven together with my young adulthood.  Because I’m not typically a “re-reader” and therefore haven’t read and reread this series in the decade and a half since I first encountered them, the stories feel largely new to me.  There are loads of details that I had forgotten, making them freshly exciting and full of surprises. 
  • My return to Harry Potter reminded me how much I enjoy Young Adult lit and so I decided to give The Hunger Games a try.  While “easy to digest and pleasurable to read” isn’t the first phrase I would assign to my experience of reading this dark series (and in fact, they, combined with the hideous election we’ve just endured, have gotten me concerned that the apocalypse is imminent) they have certainly been satisfying to work my way through, with their captivating story lines, noble characters, and surprising plot twists.
  • Liane Moriarty is one of my go-to R.F.P.P. authors.  I just finished The Hypnotist’s Love Story, which I enjoyed as much as I did The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies.  Knowing that I still haven’t read several of Moriarty’s books is a very comforting feeling.  It makes me think of Gretchen Rubin, happiness research and writer’s, secret of adulthood: Keep an empty shelf.  She writes about how an empty shelf gives her the feeling that she has room to expand.  Keeping a Moriarty (or Quindlen, or Franzen) book unread gives me the feeling that I have pleasure waiting for me, right at my fingertips.

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.