They say that your mother’s voice is the one you hear in your head, even as an adult, all your days.
I reached a point when I realized that that was not going to work for me anymore.
It was not the right voice.
And so began a long slow exorcism, a careful, yet fitful, attempt to practice speaking to myself differently. With different cadence, phrases, tone. It was like learning a new tongue, and what I needed was a language teacher, a voice to imitate, a way to get the accent right. And Cheryl Strayed was where I found it.
Cheryl Strayed is the uber-successful author of Wild, but I wasn’t trying to write like the broken-hearted 20-something who had loaded a beast of a backpack on her faltering shoulders and attempted to solo-hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995.
Instead, it was Sugar I needed in-between my ears, Strayed’s alter-ego, crafted for free in the two years between her completion of her MFA and her writing of Wild. Sugar was an anonymous advice columnist who responded to life’s biggest questions on the literary website The Rumpus, turning a defunct web advice column that got zero hits into a viral success – based not on snark or exploding kittens or shaming or even old-fashioned common sense, but exquisitely vulnerable revelations in exquisitely crafted language, that acknowledged these timeless truths – we all break in places, we all struggle to put the pieces back together, we all know intuitively what we need to do and how the pieces will fit best, we all flail for the courage to do it, but we can.
Select columns were collated in the New York Times’ best-selling collection Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, after Wild was released and Strayed outed herself as Sugar.
I read the essays and absorbed the voice, more than the advice, until it didn’t feel weird to call myself “sweetpea” or some other endearment and I was able to stop myself from looking at my reflection with a scowl and a dutiful recitation of all the imperfections I could see, and replace that tic with a firm look: “Only kindness today.”
Sitting in the Rainbow Theatre, renamed for last weekend with the more Wunder-lustrous term, The Speakeasy, Cheryl Strayed – yes, Dear Sugar, in the flesh – ran me, and a room full of other seekers through a series of writing prompts, aimed at helping us hear our inner longings more clearly (and not the voices of our parents, or the culture, or whatever else might be holding us down).
Her tool: letters to ourselves. Which could be cliché were it not for the particular phrasing she offered. Or maybe it is cliché, but in spite of that, I clearly needed to carve out a few hours, to sit quietly, turn off the phone, leave the 263 item to-list to steam and compost in its own corner, and check in with myself. Dear Lisa, she prompted. This is your inner voice of Truth and here’s what I know about what you really want. Dear Lisa, This is your Fear and I’m going to tell you everything you’re afraid of. Dear Lisa, this is your Courage and I want to remind you of all the times and ways that you have been brave.
“I don’t imagine it all will have helped you,” said Strayed, at the end of the session. “But I hope that one sentence you wrote today makes you go, okay, that was something I needed to hear.”
I flick through the pages of my notebook, afterwards, as if reading a letter from an old friend, “Lovely, More than any of those familiar old fears, so old now they’re starting to lose their teeth, you are afraid that we are running out of time. And because you’re more afraid of that, than being laughed at, you’ve been getting braver and braver.”
This was always, but never actually, a story about my mother. It’s a story about the future. The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice. If I have one gift to offer my son, it is this: to be the voice is his head that he needs to hear. When he needs it.
I don’t worry so much about getting the words right, right now. I mean, I do. Of course I do. And he’s only 6, so the complications ahead make me gasp. But so far, I don’t hesitate to say to him, “I don’t know.” More than the actual words or the advice, what I want to offer him is a tone of voice that feels like a physical embrace.
I realized that day that I don’t need Sugar, or Cheryl Strayed anymore, although it was lovely to spend the day in her aura, and see despite her immense success and celebrity, and her summer vacation invitation to go hang out at Oprah’s house in Hawaii, that she is still real and deeply empathetic, and to hear her say that the painful process of listening to your own inner voice, instead of all the other voices that put you in your place, eventually exerts its transformation, a transformation that is almost always more subtle than we expect it to be. We don’t notice ourselves becoming kinder to ourselves, we don’t notice our kids getting older, until one day, it’s too late, and we are simply a tone, resonating into the still clear air, resonating in the hearts of the people we have loved best.