I love advice columns. My favorite part of reading Dear Abby is laughing about whether someone I know is the correspondent. For example:
Dear Abby: My calico cat, Rosie, seems to be fixated on my next-door neighbor Ron. Every morning Rosie grooms herself for an hour, then jumps in the window to watch for Ron…. She sits there until Ron comes out of his house…. As soon as she sees him, Rosie starts purring.
It’s a natural question to ask: did our octogenarian neighbor Lois write this? Lois’s cat Milo loves DH. Maybe Lois just changed a few details to throw us off the scent. Rosie/Milo, calico/tuxedo. The letter is signed “Larry in Delaware.” Code for “Lois in Colorado”? Even though DH goes by his middle name, his given name IS Ronald. Here he is with the flirt Milo.
Abby’s bottom line on this letter, and most of her responses: “Accept it.” I like Abby’s pragmatism. Mostly she tells her readers to stop their bitching, accept the situation, and accept that the only person’s behavior they can change is their own.
Abby and I go way back, so I was intrigued by the book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. Dear Who? The book cover revealed that Sugar is Cheryl Strayed. I’ve read Strayed’s best-selling memoir of a hard life, Wild. I didn’t think that same author would be doling out saccharine-sweet advice even with the pseudonym Sugar. The preface describes Sugar as having “radical empathy.” What was that? I wondered.
The book took my breath away. Sugar/Strayed weaves her own tragic and touching life stories into her responses to the advice-seekers, the lovelorn, parents, children, friends. Each vignette was an emotional roller coaster. Yes, this sounds dramatic, but that was my experience reading it.
Sugar is just as no-nonsense as Abby:
I know it’s hard to know what to do when you have a conflicting set of emotions and desires, but it’s not as hard as we pretend it is.
Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore.
But she sets her observations on a grander stage:
There are some things you can’t understand yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding.
Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor, and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep.
Expressing profound truths is tricky business. She does it in a way that feels inspirational to me, not patronizing. Her tone works because she is in it with the letter writer. That is the radical empathy. Like this excerpt from her reply to a formerly compulsive thief:
Years after I stopped stealing things, I was sitting alone by a river. As I sat looking at the water, I found myself thinking about all the things I’d taken that didn’t belong to me, and before I even knew what I was doing I began picking a blade of grass for each one and then dropping it into the water. I am forgiven, I thought as I let go of the blade that stood in for the blue eye shadow. I am forgiven, I thought for each of those fancy soaps. I am forgiven, for the dog figurine and the pretty sweater, and so on until I’d let all the bad things I’d done float right on down the river and I’d said I am forgiven so many times it felt like I really was.
That doesn’t mean I never grappled with it again. Forgiveness doesn’t just sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up the hill. You have to say I am forgiven again and again until it becomes the story you believe about yourself, Desperate. I hope you will.
Her writing touches me. The choice of details, blue eye shadow, dog figurine. The choice of analogies, the pretty boy in the bar, the old fat guy. The blue eye shadow is self-explanatory. The pretty boy? There must be another story there, because life is complicated.
My review of Dear Sugar could not be complete without drawing your attention to her cat story. It’s not Abby’s intrigue of Larry, Rosie, and Ron. Sugar’s cat story is about the source of a mysterious bleating, two kittens trapped in the wall:
I’ve tried to write about this experience several times over the years. It was an odd thing that happened to me during a sad and uncertain era of my life that I hoped would tell readers something deep about my ex-husband and me. About how in love we were and also how lost. About how we were like those kittens who’d been trapped and starving for weeks. Or maybe not about the kittens at all. Maybe the meaning was in how we heard the sound, but did nothing about it until it was so loud we had no choice.
I never found a way to write about it until I wrote this letter to you, Ruler, when I realized it was a story you needed to hear. Not how the kittens suffered during those weeks they were wandering inside the dark building with no way out—-though surely there’s something there too—-but how they saved themselves. How frightened those kittens were, and yet how they persisted. How when two strangers offered up their palms, they stepped in.
Abby does a great job with the column-inches she has. But Sugar gets in the mud with her letter writers, amplifying their pain through her own experiences, and in doing that, creating poetry.