Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

I ordered Tiny Beautiful Things and my mom was visiting when I got it. So, she read it first and kept saying out loud, “You need to read this.” She even marked a few passages for me. I watched the movie adaptation of Wild about a month earlier, but could never get into the book. Tiny Beautiful Things was not hard to get into. It takes right off.

I started reading it after my mom went home. I’m not sure if there was one catalyst, or just all the things, but I was an emotional wreck during the few weeks it took me to read the book. I sent frantic texts to my long-suffering bff, and I droned on and on to my dear, long-suffering mother, and I even sobbed a little on the phone with Z, who either suffers most or least of all.

I read and quietly sobbed the duration of a long, cross-country flight. People on either side of my armrests humanely ignored me. The flight attendant retrieved a fistful of tissues for me. Clearly, I’m going through some stuff, and I think it was the potent cocktail of heartache, family, fear, love, effort, HUMANITY!, and Tiny Beautiful Things that created a big emotional purge.

Here are two quotes that meant something to me:

  • On partnering: “This is called intimacy. This is called fuck yes. When people do this with us, it’s an honor” (197).
  • On doing crazy things for love: “Love is our essential nutrient. Without it, life has little meaning. It’s the best thing we have to give and the most valuable thing we receive. Its’ worthy of all the hulabaloo” (219).

Is the book any good? I think it is good. It might be good like wine and ice cream are good: indulgent. I think there’s some useful stuff there. Cheryl Strayed turns herself inside out, revealing her most intimate and painful stories, and in doing so, we readers see the universality of our most painful and humiliating experiences, but also the universality of love, passion, of falling in love. In this book of advice, Strayed convinced me again that the heady passion between two people is rare and real and beautiful and possible and sacred, and I so, so need to believe that right now.

Hysteria directed by Tanya Wexler

File this under sherewin sees another mainstream movie and interprets it as horror, but I finally saw Hysteria the other night, and it was just so bad. It’s a film about the invention of the vibrator, which was used to treat hysteria about a century and a half ago in England. At the time, the clitoris had not yet been “discovered” and medically it was “known” that women didn’t orgasm and could only experience pleasure from penis penetration. This is a film that had so, so much potential, but it completely failed.

image from wikipedia.com

image from wikipedia.com

Maggie Gyllenhaal is in equal parts irresistibly charming, light, airy, and funny, laughing easily—too easy—at every little thing, but also understandably angry at the rampant sexism all around her. The audience is supposed to wonder if she has hysteria, but the modern audience knows that she does not, and so the back and forth between moods just seems forced and works as a barrier to getting to understand any nuance in her character. (The accent’s pretty tough too.)

It should go without saying that this is supposed to be an erotic film. It doesn’t have to be a porno, but it should be at least a little bit erotic. There are political and historical aspects to the film that allow it to remain solidly in the mainstream, but it is also about vibrators, and orgasms, and female sexuality, and, while I’m sure they were trying not to go beyond an R rating (it really should’ve been PG-13), there was absolutely nothing erotic about this film.

Of the women who go in for the treatment of hysteria, two are spotlighted in the film closely. One is an older woman and her orgasms are portrayed with a physical kind of humor. Her sexuality is portrayed as absurd, ridiculous. The underlying message is that she’s just an old woman trying having a good time. Her sexuality, her hysteria, the conditions that brought her to the doctor’s office is not taken seriously. Though what’s at stake for this woman is institutionalization or worse if her hysteria cannot be effectively treated. People’s lives are at stake. The other woman is fat, so she too is portrayed humorously, singing opera as she orgasms. These two women are portrayed as safe, silly, unsexy women (though of course old and fat women can be dangerous! serious! sexy!). In that way, the filmmakers totally let us down.

Of course, if they had portrayed a more conventional looking bombshell having a more erotic looking orgasm, they might’ve lost their R rating, despite the fact that the women are heavily clothed (as was the style at the time), they are covered by a cloth covered box, which they stick their legs into, and no skin is shown whatsoever. The relationships portrayed in the film are not at all sexual either. They’re confused and dysfunctional. That this film got an R rating is a testament to the resistance toward what would happen if a woman was empowered enough to unapologetically express her sexuality.

I wanted this film to do so much. I wanted it to speak to the historical, the political, and the sexual. These themes are still so very relevant today as women are denied legal control over their bodies in various way. The film should have been a drama. Instead, it is a contrived romantic comedy, minus the romance and minus the comedy. In making it a romantic comedy, it seems they took the easy way out. Any stars this film might get come directly from the title and the concept, which are provocative and important. Sadly, the film itself in no way lived up to that potential.

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

I have a [smart] friend who thinks Lena Dunham’s work is bad, irresponsible. We go rounds on this because I love her and think that he’s too caught up on having morally good, heroic main characters. He says I’m missing the point. Dunham’s work is shrouded in controversy, but if you’re a fan of her show Girls, you’ll definitely like Not That Kind of Girl. In fact, if you just sort of like her show, you’ll still like her book. Lena Dunham’s work is so incredibly personal and vulnerable and embarrassing and painful, and human. I identify with her so much.

First, I am fascinated with the way she deals with first/early sexual experience. It is the most honest depiction of the kinds of sexual experiences people have in their late teens and early twenties. It can be weird, awkward, and embarrassing. People are unsure about what to do where and for how long. There are strange acts that exist solely because porn tells us that’s what people do for pleasure, even if very few people are doing that thing for pleasure. I actually think this is unavoidable for the most part because there are very few activities that are comparable to coupled sex. In the process, mistakes are made and confusion abounds. Young women are in a constant negotiation with owning and expressing their sexuality, while simultaneously figuring out where the media pressures and social expectations end and where their own pleasure and desire begins. [By the way, I think this is true for men, too, but I don’t read much about it.] So, that’s important.

She’s also balancing art and social commentary, which can be weird and bad, but she does it well. One could easily assume that her work is this off the cuff confessional style, and it is, but there is also real artistry in her work. She has a deep familiarity with language and a knack for creative expression through  her writing. My expectation is that she will continue to write books, and they will be revolutionary, yes, and will only improve from a literary perspective.

Now, let me address the whole scuttlebutt over childhood sexual abuse when the book first came out. I assumed that it would be honest and artfully done, and even be good in that it would help us to think more critically about childhood sexuality. I wanted to read it first before forming my opinion, and after reading it, I thought it was good and important, and did the thing of making us think openly about childhood sexuality. The story is weird, and a bit uncomfortable, but true and not abuse, in my opinion. You can bet that Dunham thinks about consent and abuse because they are major themes in her work.

While I am highly invested in the topic of female sexuality, obviously, Dunham covers other ideas that resonate with me so strongly. Like, there are people who love people, and people who can’t stand to be alone, and people who are curious about other people [I might fall into that last category], but usually I have, as Dunham states, “the nagging sense that my true friends are waiting for me” (xiii). I have met some of my true friends, and when we meet, and recognize each other, there is much rejoicing! I love these people. They are my forever friends and lovers. But, they number so few I can count them on my hands, and I often feel lonely or out of place, wishing that I could be with one of my people when I’m tired of being alone. Lena Dunham—she gets me.

image from vogue.com

image from vogue.com

Here are some quotes I highlighted:

  • “There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman” (xvi).
  • “He was nervous, and, in a nod toward gender equality, neither of us came” (7).
  • “This was the time in life before I learned it wasn’t considered appropriate by society at large to like yourself” (34).
  • She quotes Joan Didion: “There is a common superstition that “self-respect” is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation” (38).
  • A list from a relationship…”One very unnecessary pregnancy test” (54).
  • “Wherever you go, there you are” (69). An old favorite.
  • “After several interactions in which he questioned my authority and pretended not to hear me speaking, it was clear he was my type” (71).
  • “I had broken up with him on my seventh try, and one try didn’t even count because all I could muster was “I love you” (76).
  • On meeting her love: “Look, there is my friend” (76).
  • “…desire is the enemy of contentment” (143).
  • “You will find,” she says, “that there’s a certain grace to having your heart broken” (144).
  • “…you’ll see that later and be very, very proud” (262).

And so many others.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I just finished Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit over the course of a few evenings. It’s a *heavy* read, but it’s composed of short, manageable essays. The first most noticeable thing about this book is that it is not funny. There is absolutely nothing funny or lighthearted about it, and that was a surprise. The title is sort of funny, and alludes to “mansplaining,” which is terrible and indicative of larger social issues surrounding gender, but it’s also sort of funny. The title is not a good indication of the book.

image from amazon.com

image from amazon.com

Solnit is unrelenting in her depiction of the “longest war,” a war on women. Reading it was overwhelming—a reminder of the violence and disdain lobbed at women by our society. The statistics were staggering. Having heterosexual relationships with men seemed increasingly fraught for both genders. I was left wondering how we navigate these weird power dynamics in our most personal relationships. I felt overwhelmed by the violence. I felt overwhelmed by the reminders of the constraints I face each day as a woman.

For example, each day before dark, I try to accomplish all tasks that require me to walk any distance alone or through a parking lot. Every day, I, mostly subconsciously at this point, plan my day with safety in mind. When I overtly think about these habits, it makes me sad that I live in such a violent world, and it makes me sad that safety has to be such an underlying factor in my daily decisions. Surely this has unknown negative effects. Solnit writes, “My feminism waxed and waned, but the lack of freedom to move through the city for women hit me hard and personally at the end of my teens, when I came under constant attack in my urban environment and hardly anyway seemed to think that is was a civil rights issue” (128). Solnit argues for an emphasis on turning the lens on men and why they are so frequently the perpetrators of violence, opposed to giving women the sole responsibility of preventing violence. This “Top 10 Tip to Avoid Rape” meme has made the rounds and points out the profound role that men (obviously) play in “rape culture.”

image found here

image found here.

Like Solnit, I wonder why these problems are not viewed as a deeper crisis and as a civil rights issue. In recent years, I have felt a real personal fear as politicians have made absolutely horrifying, and often scientifically inaccurate, claims about women’s bodies. As the Hobby Lobbys and various right wingers argue about what I can and cannot do with my own body, for the first time, it has felt very personal and very stifling.

Of course, the reaction to these issues is often, yes, but “not all men.” And, Solnit carefully dedicates sections of each chapter, writing “not all men, but…” This is unfortunate. We can’t just talk about this issue without spending a lot of time reassuring men and women that not all men are bad. In so many ways it seems like this reassurance is also indicative of the problem. It’s a problem that we literally can’t even talk about women’s issues without spending a good deal of time reassuring men and talking about men and turning the focus, even just briefly, back to men. On the other hand, they’re half the population, and they’re our partners, fathers, brothers, and friends, and so it makes sense that we can’t talk about women without spending some time also talking about men.

The book isn’t entirely matched thematically, and she delves into some literacy criticism, as a way to address the larger social problems that she unpacks earlier in the book. She wrote of a criticism that “does not put the critic against the text” (101). In her exchange with Susan Sontag, Solnit writes that “you don’t know if your actions are futile; that you don’t have the memory of the future” (93). This is in response to Sontag’s assertion that resistance is required, even if it is futile, and maybe it is always futile.

On Woolf, Solnit writes of a botanist that had “a knack for finding new species by getting lost in the jungle, by going beyond what he knew and how he know it, by letting experience be larger than his knowledge, by choosing reality rather than the plan” (96), and I love this idea so much. For living life, for finding new ideas, for creating art. I am such a planner and a researcher, and I love the idea of this kind of purposeful method (which, yes, requires planning and research). I love the idea of using this method as a means of discovery, rather than following what is known: “a compass by which to get lost” (106).

Of measurement and discovery, Solnit also writes about “the tyranny of the quantifiable,” which is “the way what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot” (104-105). This has been a frustration for me lately. Working in bureaucracies, and within high education, too often means a singular focus on the quantifiable, on the assessable. When other ways of being or knowing are scoffed at as being dangerous, even life-threatening, we are limited by what we can do as dreamers, thinkers, creators, and teachers.

This book reads up so quickly and so powerfully that there’s really no reason not to read it. Afterward, you can spend some time thinking through what it all means for gender, relationships, and the way men and women exist in the world. I think I’ll even pick up her other book, Wanderlust because it is about walking and maybe other things too.

Be Free Where You Are by Thich Nhat Hanh

I’m supposed to be gearing up for a spiritual year according to sundry esoteric readings and such. I entertain these mostly for fun, but when the idea reappeared to me in multiple venues, I thought, okay, I’m listening. I’m not particularly excited by the prospect of a spiritual year, but recognize that it’s a part of being. And, there’s no time like the present.

So, the other day on a friend’s table, I saw a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Be Free Where You Are, which is a little pocket-sized book based on a lecture he have to a group of prisoners a few decades ago. “Take it,” she said. So, I slipped it into my purse and read it the other night. It is a very quick read. I read half of it, then decided to read the rest of it, and then read the Q&A after that—all in one sitting. I chose to read and reread a few key sections  slowly to try to really absorb his potential meanings.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s been on my radar after a respected mentor mentioned that his work had valid philosophical and scholarly potential. After reading this short book, I can’t say that I agree. Of course, it’s way too soon to make a definitive statement either way. But, he spoke about things like being in your heart and being positive, and while I can make a lot of assumptions about what that might mean, I’m not sure that means much. Or, maybe it means everything. The book is full of these kinds of assertions, and I can only hope that his longer works offer more depth.

Thich Nhat Hanh said that understanding is crucial for forgiveness.

He said to think about each bite of food and where it came from with gratitude.

He said to meditate always, while walking and washing dishes. While inhaling and exhaling. He encourages his audience to be present. Describing this, he wrote, “Here I am.” I read it a few times:  “Here I am.” I walked over to my full-length bedroom mirror and tore away the tens of sticky notes upon which I had scribbled affirmations in permanent marker, affirmations that I had written months earlier as they occurred to me. I threw the tiny stack of words into the recycling, got out a new sticky note and wrote, “Here I am.” I placed it alone on the mirror. Here I am.

I thought about an eye-gazing meditation I did recently that was either good or meaningless, and I thought, “Here I am. Here I am.”

shelter from the storm

red skies over Utah

red skies over Utah

I go back and forth on whether or not a relationship is right for me. If I look at my adult life, I’ve gone back and forth between being single and coupled in practice too. So, assuming I’m doing what serves me, maybe I need a combination of both worlds.

That said, today is one of those days when I wish I was coupled. You see, I “put myself out there.” Professionally and creatively, I expose myself, I write, I share, I create, I publish, and that opens me up to failure, criticism, and rejection. I’m used to it. It’s par for the course. In many ways, I view failure as an important part of the process—a sign that I am pushing up against my potential.

However, sometimes rejection and pushback is hard to take. Sometimes it hurts my feelings, sometimes it feels bad, and in those moments, I crave a soft place to land, to come home to someone who is close, understands the project, and what’s at stake. I crave to be with someone who is invested, someone who can comfort and offer suggestions on how I might view things differently.

In so many ways, I can see how writers, artists, musicians—people who expose themselves to failure and criticism—would benefit tremendously from an intimate support person, someone to remind us that we are not alone in what sometimes seems like a sea of crushing criticism. I benefit from having close people who can reiterate the story that I’ve been telling myself for years—to get up and try again. If I can, I must. 

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

An autographed copy of Miranda July’s The First Bad Man arrived in a cardboard box propped against my front door. I did not order it. I was coming back from yoga. It was any old day, and my mind very slowly bended around the idea that someone had bought something for me. I brought it inside and carefully opened it. Inside was a loving note from Z and the book. I immediately read the first few paragraphs, smiled to myself, and set it aside for later.

I’ve been reading a lot lately and savored this one, reading it slowly over the course of a few weeks. There are so many lines in the first few chapters that made me laugh, or made me reach for a pencil to draw a thin gray line under a phrase or beside a passage. Miranda July is an artist who makes me feel not alone in this world. It is absolutely novel how she can capture all the strange little quips and quirks that brains do.

July also writes about really disgusting, gross-out, putrid sorts of things, and the sheer quantity of that mid-way through The First Bad Man started to get me down. The suffocation the main character creates for herself, her home, her kitchen, her frying pan, her throat condition, the containers of urine, the breast punching—it all got to be too much, and I didn’t want to spend any more time in the book. But, of course, I did and in the last few chapters, I started underlining things again, and smiling as I read, and once again, felt that I was not alone in the world.

When I read a particularly delightful passage, I found myself turning to the title page and running my finger over her indecipherable magic marker signature. Who was this woman? Is she like me? Or, is she commenting on what it’s like to be me?

When I finished the book, I googled her. She’s married to a handsome man! Maybe I will marry a handsome man too, I thought. She just had a child. Maybe I will have a child too, but later, when I am her age. Will I worry about bringing a child into “our Lover’s Story”? Will there be a “Story”? In those moments of reading and googling, and “liking” her on Facebook, and watching the video she had just posted, I thought, yes, my life will look very much like hers. And, perhaps more deluded than the main character in The First Bad Man, I thought, but for me there will be no Clee, no Phillip, no Kubelko Bondy, no bad person or thing, and so I have obviously learned nothing, but will keep the book on my shelf and will go back and read parts of it again.

Forever by Judy Blume

I recently saw Forever by Judy Blume on a list of great books by women for women. I haven’t read young adult literature since…probably since I was a teenager. I was immediately struck by how bad the writing was. The book is a study in telling instead of showing. After deciding early on that it was not worth a close read, I just skipped ahead, read all of the sexy parts, and called it a day.

image from goodreads.com

image from goodreads.com

However, after a few days of reflection, I’ve come to realize that it probably is an important book. Sure, I found most of the writing off-putting, but it was probably pretty good/typical/appropriate/accessible for young adult fiction. Evidently, it’s one of the first books that’s about young people entering into their first sexual relationships. Blume portrays a very white, middle class, private school kind of normal. So, that was limiting, but still useful. It depicts young people being very straightforward with each other. All of the experiences are very consensual and thoughtful. If someone has a feeling or doesn’t want to do something, that’s okay. They talk about it. Blume is modeling a relationship, though perhaps overly simplified, is straightforward and consensual, and sadly, that’s really rare. So, after reading the thing, I’d agree that this is an important book for all women, especially young women, and the people who want to sleep with them.

Meru directed by Jimmy Chin, et al

This year at Sundance, I had the opportunity to see Meru, a documentary film about Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk’s summit of Mount Meru, or the “Shark Fin” in the Himalayas. I was a little worried that I might spend most of my time averting my gaze from the vertigo-inducing shots of men hanging by a rope over 20,000 foot drops. While there were plenty of those shots, there are also a lot of beautiful scenes that did not invoke a need to cover my eyes. The cinematography is absolutely beautiful and unforgiving throughout.

image from Meru trailer

image from Meru trailer

At about the mid-point, viewers get a lot of backstory on these three climbers. Each of them overcomes absolutely unbelievable obstacles. (Well, maybe not so unbelievable given that they are elite climbers.) I went in worried that this would be one of these films when men (yes, men) do these insane things that make no sense and risk their lives and everyone’s lives, and for what? But I enjoyed and admired these men throughout the film.

They each brought such unique personalities to the screen. Conrad is the hardened old-timer with tons of experience. He’s got a remarkable record for safety, but he’s got a thin exterior might be pushing too hard at this point in his career. There is evidence that Jimmy is aggressive and unstoppable in his pursuit of success, but he’s so quiet and understated about it. Renan has a natural, physical ability, but he’s got a spooked look in his eyes—maybe it’s the fear of being a newcomer or maybe he’s haunted by what’s to come.

Watching the film, I was proud to be in the same species as these guys. It makes me think about the things we’re driven to do. The things we obsess over until we absolutely must do them. Some of us know what we have to do, and it usually means logging countless hours alone with one’s self. This is why, though I recognize my need for relationships, I trust solitude. Important things happen there, and etching out that time and being willing to spend that time alone is key. For some people, that great thing is having a child.

During this film, though it is very masculine, I was reminded of doula work. Like the men climbing Meru, women in labor are inexplicably driven, but they reach their breaking point, they’re brought to the brink, and then beyond to the place where their skin starts to break—just like the climbers. They continue on as the animal body takes over and the higher intelligence and the spirituality are all forced to work together. All three are required, which is one of the lessons, I think. I always say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or it weakens you badly.” However, in this film, what doesn’t kill them actually does make them stronger. Cliché as it may sound, the film reminded me of our greatness as human beings. I feel newly inspired to pursue the things I must do in this life, for more quiet focus to better understand what those things are, and a deeper commitment to the solitude they require.

Palo Alto: Stories by James Franco

Despite having recently lost my ability to read anything with a discernible plot (or written by a man, for that matter), I read and enjoyed James Franco’s first selection of shorts stories, entitled, Palo Alto: Stories. And, it was good. I mean, everyone’s reading it and wondering if they’re just reading it because he’s famous, and while that might be the case, the writing holds its own. He tips his hat to his teachers, and I so hope that he workshopped this stuff like the rest of us.

While it’s got a major publisher, it feels independent. Ideally, this is the sort of text that could help bridge the gap between big conglomerate publishers and small independent presses. I don’t really think capitalism or consumerism work that way, but as a reader, I cannot tell you how badly I want to read more of this kind of work.

Anyway, these are small, plot-driven stories. They are careful and conceptually rich. While I’ll admit I wasn’t too eager to spend a lot of time with teenaged-boys or high school, I think some of the territory Franco covers is important, even necessary. The first story, “Halloween,” is really so good. It’s one that has stuck with me for the past few days. It’s one I’ll remember.

I’ve been a fan of Franco’s since his Freaks and Geeks years (or rather, when I watched it on DVD several years after the fact), but even still, I’ve been a fan, and I’m glad to see his genuine success in writing.

As you know, I read George Saunders this summer, and I actually thought Franco’s work could be categorized with Saunders. Franco’s work is much more accessible, mind you, but it is somewhat indicative of the real made strangely dystopic that is happening in contemporary male writing these days, and it’s satisfying to see that aesthetic emerge culturally.

Also, and more importantly, is it just me, or do the pages smell vaguely of cologne?

palo alto

image from amazon.com