Tiny Beautiful Things
Writing memoir is about finding the metaphors in life, Cheryl Strayed said at her reading a few days ago. It was so obvious, and so true. You can find metaphors in nearly everything.
I went to The Whitney for the first time this weekend to see Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water. There was a long line and hours of wandering through the exhibits before it was my turn. You see the exhibit alone, for one minute exactly, all lights and water and mirrors, reflected into infinity. It was beautiful, and yet, less profound than I had imagined. I was distracted by my own reflection, an invader in an otherwise fantastic world, the mundane weight of my glasses and my too familiar clothes.
The thing that struck me was a Edward Hopper painting, Woman in the Sun. None of the pictures I see of it capture it exactly—in person it has this bright calm, and this airy vastness. The colors are soft, yet vibrant. The woman stands, alone, naked, a cigarette in her hand, tousled heels on the floor, looking out in that perfect streak of sunlight. But what was she looking at? Who was she waiting for? I said calm earlier, but maybe it’s more of a disquieting calm, the sort of calm that looms over you, like the wisps of a storm cloud in muted watercolors.
The last thing Cheryl read was the Dear Sugar column that was the namesake of Tiny Beautiful Things, the book. It was simple: what advice would she give her 20-something self, talking to her now? Be brave enough to break your own heart, she read. Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.
The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.
Acceptance is a small, quiet room.
I’d read the column before (it is wrenching, and you should read it all, if you haven’t), but I needed to hear it right then, too. Maybe I always need to be hearing it, these reminders and reassurances. Acceptance: a surprisingly hard thing to come to.
The thing about being in your 20s, I think, more than the mask of irony and self-consciousness and insecurity, is uncertainty: a sense of possibility. A stranger (very drunk, very enthusiastic) at a party recently asked me what I wanted in life, and I stared at him, suddenly confused. Was it possible to convey right then everything that I ever wanted? I want to be a famous writer, I said, but that was over simplistic, and not exactly true. How could I explain the thing that I didn’t even entirely understand myself? Could I have told him that what I want is to be living always with that feeling, that dreamlike sense of purpose, of unreality, that shadows you after you see something very wonderful—a play, a movie, a book?
It comes in other times, too. Like, on a walk without a destination on a cool summer night, on a rooftop where you can’t see stars but see the Empire State Building instead. Is that something you can explain? Is that something that’s ever, really, achievable?
And for the woman, bathing in the golden streak of her room: if no one ever arrives, will she stand there until even after her sun sets?