They say we should never meet our heroes.
When we see our heroes for who they are, they mostly fail to live up to our expectations. They are, like us, flawed humans who make mistakes and fuck things up and hurt the people they love on accident or sometimes on purpose. They are, like us, people who say things they sometimes don’t mean and sometimes things they do mean, things they mean so much that it exposes a bone of truth so raw and ugly and scary that we wish we’d never said them in the first place. This beastly truth should make them less eternal, less ideal, less honorable, less heroic.
But what if it doesn’t? And what if our heroes present themselves from the beginning as so human that we can’t even construct that illusion around them? What if they’re so painfully honest that we can’t pretend?
About a year and a half ago, I happened across an article posted online by an acquaintance called “DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #64: Tiny Beautiful Things.” It is a letter to the author’s self in her early twenties, prompted by a reader, and it is powerfully written, specific and moving. Please don’t trust me on this, go read it yourself. You won’t regret it.
“#64: Tiny Beautiful Things” has been a defining article, a crucial set of rules, an unofficial manifesto in which all the details don’t apply to me but the core values do. Sugar wrote anonymous, beautiful and wretchedly truthful articles. She wrote about death and love and fear and sex, about writing and courage and and the people who we become when we think no one else is paying attention. She wrote about trusting yourself. About living out what you already know to be true, that “you must trust your truest truth, even though there are other truths running alongside it.”*
Dear Sugar provided me with answers for questions that hadn’t even formed yet; questions I still haven’t parsed. Something about that article in particular pulled a thread out from inside me, started an unraveling, an emotional and lovely and terrifying thing.
To herself and to her readers, Sugar said, “You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.”
I read this before I knew my partner would break up with me. I was someone he loved; he was, in this moment, simply someone who wanted to change the terms of this one particular relationship. I thought about this as I processed it; as I processed my own advice to friends who were also considering leaving their partners and I told them, “be brave enough to break your own heart,” and I meant it. And then all of a sudden I was on the other end of it. With the clarity of eight months’ time now since the breakup, I can tell you that this paragraph gave me something. It didn’t make me understand my own situation more than I already did, but it gave me something to hold on to, another truth to face, another thread to pull. That perspective made things more bearable. “You are not a terrible person.” Like I was saying it directly to him.
In February this year, Dear Sugar came out as Cheryl Strayed, an author I’d never heard of. Part of me was terrified to find out who she was, because being a real person with a real name and a real face would ruin the Sugar mystique. Part of me really wanted to know, because I wanted to gorge myself on her work, to devour every word she had written. In April I read her novel, Torch, a piece of autobiographical fiction about cancer, about her mother’s death. In May I read Wild, her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail a few years after her mother had died and her marriage had fallen apart at her own hands. I looked up every essay I could find online, and I read them all. In July, Tiny Beautiful Things came out as a collection, a physical book I could hold in my hands, a bound volume of Sugar.
And last night, she came to speak at Amsterdam Bar in St. Paul. I requested the night off from work months ago, because I needed to be there, to see her, to hear what her real voice sounded like and the cadence with which she read her own words. It was so odd, in the beginning, the mix of feeling this real devotion to a stranger who wasn’t a stranger, the din of bar patrons chatting, the weird desperation we feel when we want a drink from the waitress and can’t get her attention. The dizziness, the red wine warmth and fuzziness of the whole situation, the odd lighting and bad sound. It felt like swimming, or like it wasn’t real. They say we should never meet our heroes.
The discussion moderator said something important. He said to her, “You make me want to be a better person. You make me feel like it’s okay that I’m not.” I agree with him.
It was intense, sharing the experience with all these other people, people who said “awww” in all the right places, as a chorus of emotional voyeurs. It was a stark difference between that and when Sugar was anonymous and I had this private relationship with her, reading at my laptop, connecting with her veiled but very naked and vulnerable self. And I felt like no one was looking. Like I shared something with her that no one else knew about.
Part of me wonders if Sugar can ever come back, now that she’s been unveiled, identified. Someone at the reading last night asked this, and Strayed said yes, she can and she will. She told us that she always wrote with the knowledge that she would one day put her name on Sugar’s words, that being Cheryl was not any different from being Sugar. “I was never anonymous to myself,” she said.
The last thing she said while onstage was about the importance of finding solace in the wilderness—whether that wilderness is the PCT or the banks of the Mississippi River. She is right.
And for me, that also extends to the wilderness of the unknown territory of yourself. It felt like she was saying to me, you must find solace in the trees and roots and shadows and animal noises and the sweet and rotting and bodyish smells of your own unknown forest. She once wrote, “walk without a stick into the darkest woods.”**
And here I am. I’m standing at the edge of the forest. I’m leaving my stick behind, but I am bringing a book.
Walk with me?