Words to Live By

I got another tattoo. A black and gray owl with wise eyes rests on my right bicep. A locked heart lays on its chest. Its claws grasp the key. I get tattoos to mark the transitions, those shifts in my life that suggest nothing will ever be the same. Tattoos make endings and beginnings concrete. My skin changes. Inner turmoil becomes visible, and I move on.

I got another tattoo because I felt moorless and lost. Maybe, I could force a transition with a the sting of the needles and the buzz of the tattoo gun. Maybe, I would wallow less. Maybe, there would be progress.

While I waited on the tattoo artist, Shane, to finish the sketch of my owl with locked heart, I pulled out my copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. I’ve taken to carrying the book around in my purse. I like the familiar heft it adds to my bag. I like to know it’s always with me. These moments of indefinite waiting pass by as I reread the collection of “Dear Sugar” advice columns that were written anonymously for The Rumpus.

What you should know is that I hate self-help books. I refuse to read them because of their overwhelming optimism about the project of the self. You have the ability to change you! Only you! And for the low price of $24.95, you might curate a nicer version of you complete with positive thoughts and success! (Fine print: All of our books ignore the structural constraints of the world, so some of you might not actually be able to curate the self you want. Sorry, not sorry.) I’m beyond skeptical about the language of self-help, as if it is so easy to change and refashion who we are.

Yet, I find myself reading and rereading a book of advice columns. I’m not even sure how I found Tiny Beautiful Things. I don’t remember if someone recommended it or if I found the columns online. All I know is that I picked it up with deep skepticism about whether I would actually read it, and I couldn’t put the book down.

When I first decided to get a new tattoo, I planned to get some of Strayed’s phrases tattooed on my wrists:

“Let yourself be gutted.”

“Art isn’t anecdote.”

“Be brave enough to break your own heart.”

“Every last one of us can do better than give up.”

I couldn’t quite decide which of the phrases, which I murmur to myself throughout the day, should become permanent. There were too many possibilities. Dear Sugar’s advice would have scrawled from my wrists up my forearms. Her words would bump up against the tattoos I already have. Wrists and forearms would not be enough. Shoulders, calves, thighs, and back would also have to bear Sugar’s wisdom. From shoulders to feet, I would be covered in words, her words.

I chose the owl, a symbol of wisdom and learning, instead.

What I realized as I reread Tiny Beautiful Things in that tattoo parlor is that I already carry Strayed’s words with me. Her words have become my words. I’ve applied what she writes to own life. I don’t need them etched on my flesh because her words help me live. Her advice, given to other people, saves me from myself. This is more than any other book has done.

On the tough days, when fatigue settles on me like a heavy coat, and disappointment leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, I long for someone to call me “sweet pea.”  For someone to urge me to move forward. I manage to get stuck in my own suffering. I tend to wallow. And yet, Sugar tells me to reach, so I do. I grumble about how hard it is to reach, but I reach anyway. Sugar reminds me: “Nobody will protect you from your own suffering.” No one will, Kelly, no one. My mantra becomes: “Every last one of us can do better than give up.” Do you hear me, sweet pea, don’t give up. I hear you, Sugar, and I’m listening.

My best friend and I have taken to calling Strayed Saint Cheryl. We recite the words of Tiny Beautiful Things as if they are litany, or maybe even a prayer. We text her wisdom back and forth. Dear Sugar emerges as my newfound moral compass. She’s empathetic, humane, compassionate, and unrepentant. She’s everything I’ve sought in a religious institution, and what I’ve never found. If she could see me, I bet she wouldn’t turn away.

My owl tattoo has healed nicely. I’ve reread the book once more to find the wisdom that I might have missed. The pages have started to show wear. There are underlines in different colors, notes and scribbles. I rewrite her advice in the margins to teach my mind and body which of her words matter most.

The advice that I write over and over is: “The fuck is your life. Answer it.”  It is Sugar’s response to that incredulous question: WTF?! That question we so often employ when we can’t comprehend what’s happening to us. I repeat Strayed’s answer aloud in my office and disturb the two sleeping dogs. It is the hardest advice for me to handle.   Suffering happens to us. Life happens to us. Sometimes, we can’t comprehend either, but they are ours. They make us who we are. We can’t shy away from that truth; we have to own it.

Strayed’s columns have encouraged me to see myself. To face those beautiful and awful truths of who I am with compassion and love. To reckon with the fuck that makes up my life with grace. She encourages me, and all the other readers, to “tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.” In Tiny Beautiful Things, I find love, acceptance, truth, intimacy, openness, gratitude, and an appreciation of life’s messiness. There’s no stark certainty here. No punishing judgment. Just a vision of how fucked-up life can be and the importance of radical empathy.

Saint Cheryl, full of grace, thank you for your advice.

Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.