I should be finishing my allotted reading for the day, especially since I am on such an academic roll, but I’m afraid it takes – as it often does – a backseat to my feelings. I was taking a break tonight, from reading A Million Little Pieces, and decided to visit Twitter and Facebook like I usually do. I saw a video of Cheryl Strayed “outing” herself as Dear Sugar. I saw the way she held the glasses in her hand, the warmth of her voice, and I started to wonder about all the other moments in my life (specifically, two) that I have been utterly changed by another person’s words, or just by another person — whether I knew them, or not.
One day, while I was working at my bar, I was tired, and finishing up a shift that I had spent mainly with the TV and the kitchen’s leftovers. Tips were low, customers were almost invisible, and my feet hurt. I had a variety of things pressing at home, but I felt gentle. I was ready to pack up – just like that moment in class when you’re giving that final bit of patience that you own to the speaker – but I could wait a few seconds longer, and that is when a few startlingly different and somewhat intimidating Jamaican men walked into the bar and asked for a few pints.
I seated them on the second level – level being somewhat an overstatement, since it was really just a stair or two that raised the floor a foot above the rest of the bar, and guarded it with a rail so drunkards wouldn’t fall over it and crack their skulls. I brought them their beers and went back to cleaning up the bar: wiping handrails, running glasses through the dishwasher, sweeping, ordering, organizing and counting my cash.
When I went to check on them, they asked me to sit down. “Okay,” I said, tentatively. You never know what kind of people will ask you to sit down with them in a bar. I learned to be careful, not from any horrible experience, but from natural self-protection against creeps, especially when I was the only visible worker in the bar. My day was going fine, I said, but I was tired. One of the men, the one with carefully pulled-back dreadlocks hanging down to the backs of his kneecaps, told me his wife was cheating on him, and he was getting a divorce. It was killing him. His children were the love of his life, they had met so magically, everything had been fine. “She’s going through her teenage rebellious phase – rediscovering herself – in her 40s,” he said, with the weak optimism in his voice attempting to convince me that this, like adolescence, would grow into maturity.
“Would you forgive her, if you were me?”
Heavy question to lay on a 20-year-old bartender who does this to fund her studies and barely knows you. Heavy. Depends on what she wants to do from here, I guess, I replied. “She wants tah go aut and fuck around,” his friend chirps in. His friend is tall, smiling, with dark, smooth skin, a soft voice, and the sort of lines on his face that spell kindness under his eyes and beside his mouth. He says that with a smirk, but it sounds like untold sadness that isn’t shared with his friend’s eardrum, or his heart. Nobody can heal anyone else if they don’t want to be healed.
“So what’s on yor mind, gurl? Whats troublin’ yuh?”
How do you know there’s something troubling me, I ask, grumpy at the fact that I am so open with my face. I just do, says the tall friend. I am having trouble with my dad, I guess. We fight. A lot. I explain the situation ad nauseam, settle my tired butt into the booth with my new friends, and listen. Nobody else is in the bar, the radio is low enough for quiet conversation, and my cook is getting high behind the building. I listen.
“Forgive your father, girl. It is doing you no good – only harm – to hold anything against him. He loves you. Be good to yourself by forgiving him.”
You can hear something a million times until you hear it, I thought. I was near tears, and they both reached out to give me a hug. These men were strangers to me, I realized. But there was nothing more intimate that I had experienced with anybody else. Nothing more truthful than honesty coming from a stranger’s mouth.
I don’t remember how I found The Rumpus, or Dear Sugar. I just know that when I did – even when I didn’t understand half of what The Rumpus writers were writing about – I let all of it flow over me and into me like water in the shower.
It’s not only because of her post about “Writing Like a Motherfucker” that I have copied word by strenuous word into my journals, but because she struggles, with every reply, with every word, to be “radically sincere”. She is fearless about her love. And in her writing.
There is nothing – nothing I would love more – than to be fearless about my love.
I have never had a favourite author. During my undergrad (ie. still, now) I have been attempting to read the classics. Wuthering Heights, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Lolita, 1984, The Prelude, The Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man – whatever the classics are. I respect the classics. The classics were writing before I was writing, they have filled in the gaps between antiquity and me and for that I will be forever grateful to these books. But I don’t understand Kerouac. I don’t get everything about Hemingway. Wordsworth’s verses are lost on me.
There is very little sympathy in their books. There is theory, there is that eternal striving for understanding, there is emotions and relationships and events. But the way in which they write was not meant by them or meant for us to understand as empathetic or sincere. Sincere in their style, maybe. But not in their connection.
To me, Cheryl Strayed’s force for connection is as strong as a black hole, but a little different. She sucks everything chaotic into herself, but she doesn’t implode. She runs it through that little empathetic machine – that machine that says, I, too, could have been here, and understood this, so I will try to understand this now – and writes words that are like prayers being answered.
I continuously catch myself looking for writers that are so vulnerable, they become genius. Vulnerability, to me, is not lack of strength. It is that tender space, for a writer, or a human being, between knowing who you are and knowing that others do not know who you are, and navigating to an area where it is safe for these two thoughts to mingle. From this mingling, I feel, the most beautiful things can happen. The most beautiful forays into love, and connection, and sincerity – even across the internet, across continents, across angry commentators and power failures.
I read Sugar’s columns even when I have no similarity to the letter-writers. I have very little similarity to Sugar, except for that we are both white and female and live in North America. Those seem like vague cross-sections, and that is because they are. Everything else in our lives has been as different as jail cells and jungles. We know nothing of each other – she most likely knows nothing of me – but I feel like if I sent her an email, and I told her that my life just stopped making sense one day, as I was walking down the street on my way home from the grocery store, she would, with her words, take my hand, call me sweet pea, and sit down on the sidewalk beside me while I told her why everything was wrong, and then say,
Yes, maybe. You will be okay. You will find something inside yourself, which I also have inside myself, which each of us has, like little self-generating planets, and you will take it and wake up for that little bit of yourself, every morning. At night, you will wait for the next morning so you can be reminded of that little ball of drive that wakes in you. You will repeat this every day until all you have is that little warmth, glowing, constantly.