Unto Us, These States of Grace: A Love Letter to Sugar
When I was younger, I used to read Dear Abby and Ask Ann Landers. Those advice columns offered brief glimpses into the troubled lives of others. Sometimes, the columns were lighthearted and humorous with advice on how to deal with inlaws or children who refused to move out at the age of 31. There were more serious columns that dealt with addiction, or the death of a loved one, or a crumbling marriage. The advice of Ann and Abby was always sage, albeit a bit tame. In a few sentences they applied down home wisdom and common sense but more than anything their advice felt like a brief reminder that we are not alone.
The Rumpus has a weekly advice column called Dear Sugar. I don’t know if you are familiar with this column. If you are not, you should be because it makes the strongest case for the advice column as something more than simply an advice column. Each week, the anonymous Sugar doles out generous, soulful, truly stunning advice in the form of richly woven narratives that draw from her (or his?) life, and her experiences and her observations of how the world turns. From week to week, Dear Sugar shows us beautifully, painfully, perfectly, that we are not alone. Shortly after her column is posted each week, there is a frenzy of activity on Twitter, extolling the virtues of her most recent column. Readers share how they’ve cried or laughed or felt a profound shift in their understanding of life as we live it. The attention is well-deserved. Not a week goes by when I don’t want to write her an effusive thank you letter, some kind of exultation for how highly I think of her writing, her words, her wisdom and wit.
Sugar, whomever she is, one of the best writers I’ve read as of late. Each time I read her writing, I think of Creative Nonfiction’s recent call for narrative blog posts that embody the qualities we generally attribute to literature. I am always moved when I read Dear Sugar. My eyes are opened. My heart is shattered. It is very easy, when reading online, to skim, to rush through, to not linger, to not let the words sink in. These things are not possible when reading Dear Sugar. Her words grab you and invade and overwhelm. Her words rise and become a fine, fine example of literature.
In Dear Sugar #39, someone wrote, “Dear Sugar, WTF, WTF, WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day,” and Sugar took that question, that nothing of a question and wrote a response that was a beautiful story, that was literature, that was breathtaking. Every single word in every line was pushing forward, reaching for a state of grace, finding that state of grace, offering it to us. In her response, she wrote of her terrible relationship with her grandfather and her father and how the people in her lives have always died ugly deaths.
The bird’s suffering would’ve been unbearable at any time, but it was particularly unbearable at that moment in my life because my mother had just died. Her death was ugly. She was only forty-five. And because she was dead I was pretty much dead too. I was dead but alive. And I had a baby bird in my palms that was dead but alive as well.
Those words are simple but when you read them with all the words surrounding them, you cannot help, or at least, I cannot help but feel something. Each week, I wonder what Sugar will have to say. I wonder how she will reach out to the damaged souls who write her needing to hear they are not alone, needing to be seen and understood and cared for. No matter what the question is, Sugar finds away to offer wisdom and counsel that is fierce, resonant, and empathic. No question is treated as silly or ridiculous. No problem is dismissed. It cannot be easy to read the problems of others, to immerse yourself in their worries and lives week after week but Sugar doesn’t let the difficulty of her task show. She doesn’t position herself as an expert. Instead, she offers her advice as a wise friend with a lush vocabulary and a big, beating heart.
Last week, a young man asked Sugar for some advice on how to get laid. Many columnists would have approached the question snarkily. The boy was 22 and said he had everything figured out except for lust and love. The sarcastic responses practically write themselves but Sugar, she took this young guy with all his angst and his very real concerns, and she held them in the palm of her hand.
Just stop thinking about it and do it. Thinking about it too much seems to be a pattern in your life, a cocoon of doubt and trepidation that you’ve woven from your anxieties and sorrows. It’s a pattern I see you clinging to even now, as you simultaneously overly-analyze your dating options while claiming that you’d like to “just finally get laid.” Break the pattern, hon. It isn’t serving you any more.
I could write about the brilliance of each and every Dear Sugar column but I will leave you with yesterday’s devastating column that I insist you read. I won’t bother to excerpt it because I would simply reprint the column in its entirety. What Sugar wrote was a crescendo that spoke to the terrible beauty of life and how ultimately, what we have to do is endure the horrible things that happen to us because there is no other way forward but through. She says other amazing things but at the heart of yesterday’s column is a truth that is uncomfortable and difficult to bear but ultimately it is the reminder, again, that we are not alone. There is a lot of great writing online that embodies the qualities we hold dearest when we talk about literature, the qualities that reach for states of grace. Do not overlook Dear Sugar as one of the finest examples.