When people ask me for book recommendations, I never know what to say. Because although I read voraciously and have favorites, what we read is a matter of personal taste. It’s the same reason that, as a waitress, I hesitate to recommend anything. I hate ribeyes, but my customers might like them.
However, I’m reading this book now that I would recommend to just about anyone because it has something for just about everyone.
It’s “Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed.
It’s a collection of letters people send her (before they knew it was her, when she was called “Sugar”) and the advice she gives them back. But it is not Dear Abby.
It has sex and drugs and marriage and divorce and relationships in between and death and babies and parenting and all the issues that we tackle as we can, without knowing what the fuck we’re doing. Cheryl Strayed is the voice of reason, the person who is able to articulate what we in the muck of our lives can’t. I can’t stop crying and marveling at all she has to say, how kind and intelligent and insightful she is.
Getting divorced was a hard decision for me, a choice that took years. Despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to articulate the precise reason, although I knew there was one. There was no transgression to point to, no straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t until this morning, when I laid in bed reading Cheryl Strayed’s words, that I saw my own reasoning articulated back to me, in a way that only someone else can do. I love that ability of literature: how it gives us the language we didn’t have before to articulate what we couldn’t.
There was nothing wrong with my ex-husband. He wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty close. I met him a month after I turned nineteen and I married him on a rash and romantic impulse a month before I turned twenty. He was passionate and smart and sensitive and handsome and absolutely crazy about me. I was crazy about him too, though not absolutely. He was my best friend; my sweet lover; my guitar-strumming, political rabble-rousing, road-tripping sidekick; the co-proprietor of our vast and eclectic music and literature collection; and daddy to our two darling cats.
But there was in me an awful thing, from almost the very beginning: a small, clear voice that would no, no matter what I did, stop saying go.
Go, even though you love him.
Go, even though he’s kind and faithful and dear to you.
Go, even though he’s your best friend and you’re his.
Go, even though you can’t imagine your life without him.
Go, even though he adores you and your leaving will devastate him.
Go, even though your friends will be disappointed or surprised or pissed off or all three.
Go, even though you once said you would stay.
Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone.
Go, even though you’re sure no one will ever love you as well as he does.
Go, even though there is nowhere to go.
Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough.
Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here to Serve button has been eternally pinned. We’re expected to nurture and give by the very virtue of our femaleness, to consider other people’s feelings and needs before our own. I’m not opposed to those traits. The people I most admire are in fact nurturing and generous and considerate. Certainly, an ethical and evolved life entails a whole lot of doing things one doesn’t particularly want to do and not doing things one very much does, regardless of gender.
But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.
Leaving a relationship because you want to doesn’t exempt you from your obligation to be a decent human being. You can leave and still be a compassionate friend to your partner. Leaving because you want to doesn’t mean you pack your bags the moment there’s strife or struggle or uncertainty. It means that if you yearn to be free of a particular relationship and you feel that yearning lodged within you more firmly than any of the other competing and contrary yearnings are lodged, your desire to leave is not only valid, but probably the right thing to do. Even if someone you love is hurt by that.
It took me ages to understand this. I still can’t entirely explain why I needed to leave my ex. I was tortured by this very question for years because I felt like such an ass for breaking his heart and I was so shattered I’d broken my own. I was too young to commit myself to one person. We weren’t as compatible as we initially seemed. I was driven by my writing, and he begrudged my success in equal measure to his celebration of it. I wasn’t ready for long-term monogamy. He grew up upper middle class and I grew up poor and I couldn’t keep myself from resenting him for that. My mother died and my stepfather stopped being a father to me and I was an orphan by the age of twenty-two and reeling in grief.
All of these reasons are true enough in their specificity, but they all boil down to the same thing: I had to leave. Because I wanted to. Just like all of you do, even if you aren’t ready to do it yet. I know by your letters that you each have your own lists, but all those lists boil down to one that says go. I imagine you’ll understand that at some point. That when it comes down to it, you must trust your truest truth, even though there are other truths running alongside it–such as your love for the partners you want to leave.
I’m not talking about just up and walking out on your partners the moment the thought occurs to you. I’m talking about making a considered choice about your life. I desperately wanted to not want to leave my ex-husband. I agonized in precisely the ways you are agonizing, and I shared a fair piece of that struggle with my ex. I tried to be good. I tried to be bad. I was sad and scared and sick and self-sacrificing and ultimately self-destructive. I finally cheated on my former husband because I didn’t have the guts to tell him I wanted out. I loved him too much to make a clean break, so I botched the job and made it dirty instead. The year or so I spent splitting up with him after I confessed my sexual dalliances was wall-to-wall pain. It wasn’t me against him. It was the two of us wrestling together neck-deep in the muckiest mud pit. Divorcing him is the most excruciating decision I’ve ever made.
But it was the wisest one too. And I wasn’t the only one whose life is better for it. He deserved the love of a woman who didn’t have the word go whispering like a deranged ghost in her ear. To leave him was a kindness of a sort, though it didn’t seem that way at the time.
I laid in bed this morning, reading words that so closely resembled my own life, I didn’t feel alone any more. That is the other magic of literature, the community it gives us when we feel like we’re the only ones dealing with this particular pain. We aren’t.