August 19, 2015

Unabashed sincerity

When I was 13, and lived with my family in a suburb of Vancouver, Washington called Salmon Creek, I had a vast collection of blank VHS tapes. Each tape was carefully numbered. Every afternoon after school, I’d fast forward to find a blank spot on the tape and wait for the opening bars of the Boy Meets World theme song. If it was an episode I hadn't already caught on tape, I'd mark the episode name, a description, and the tape number and time into a spreadsheet I kept. I intended to tape every single episode.

I never quite managed to catch them all. I kept my collection until it was time to move back to Australia, but by then the shows hold on me had wavered and I couldn't quite justify putting all those tapes, some of which were wearing out, on a ship for three months. So I left Boy Meets World behind.

But one of the wonders of the world is the way the past can return to you in the most unexpected ways. In this case, it was in a video competition MoveOn was holding before the 2008 election. Watching random entries, I noticed a familiar face: it was Rider Strong, who played Shaun, the best friend of the lead character in Boy Meets World. So, naturally, I searched for him on Twitter, followed him and told him how great I thought the ad was. He replied, I had a mini-meltdown at the thought of one of my teenage idols communicating with me, and that was that...

...Until about five years later, when Strong tweeted that he has started a book podcast called Literary Disco with a few friends of his. I wasn't much of a podcast person at the time, beyond the standard This American Life and the odd episode on a political issue that interested me. But the concept of this figure who was so large in my teenage years talking about books was too intriguing to ignore, and so I downloaded the third episode of Literary Disco, in which they read a Sweet Valley High book.

I was on a bus, on King Street, outside the Enmore Theatre when I hit play. I was on my way to visit a friend and, though I was late, I got off a few stops early and wandered to his house, because I wasn't willing to press stop. I wound up walking the 7kms home that night, safe in the knowledge that I had more Literary Disco episodes to listen to.

I quickly worked my way through other episodes. My to-read list grew rapidly, and the first book I bought that had been featured on the show was Cheryl Strayed's book Tiny Beautiful Things.

To call Strayed's book a revelation in my life somehow seems inadequate. Her beautiful writing, her approach to life, her emphasis on kindness and empathy and grace: these were things that spoke to me and to the values system I'd slowly been carving over time. The introduction to the book talks about her approach as being a kind of "radical empathy", a phrase I love for its simultaneous strength and kindness. And so I have tried to place empathy at the centre of my relationships, frequently failing, but every time I feel myself bubbling up with anger and rage, I try to remember to be empathic. Over time, that rage has bubbled up less and less frequently. My drama-filled relationship have become comfortable, reliable, while still being challenging and enriching.

There is hardly a difficult situation in my life now when some piece of advice she has shared doesn't come into my mind. Here are a few, as I remember and recite them to myself:
  • Be brave enough to break your own heart
  • Most of your assumptions about people are in direct relationship to your naive pomposity
  • Real love flows freely in both directions 
  • You cannot convince anyone to love you: this is an absolute rule
  • The only way out of a hole is to climb out
  • You're up too high and you're down too low. Neither place is where you get the work done. Where you get the work done is on the floor
  • You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching
  • Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue.
  • Acceptance is a small, quiet room
Strayed taught me to treasure the small and quiet. She taught me to be kinder to myself, and to be kinder to other. She taught me how to really forgive, unconditionally and emphatically. And in thinking about these things over and over, I realised there was something that belonged alongside radical empathy: radical sincerity. To be absolutely honest and sincere is terrifying, and so we hedge our bets and undercut our own feelings and build an exit into everything we do. 

Yet when I look at all the wonderful and, yes, terrible things in the world, they demand sincerity from me.

And so, dear friends, I start this little project, to share the wonderful, not the terrible, with complete sincerity. A weekly note, straight from me to you, sharing some of the beautiful, lyrical, tasty and poetic things I have encountered or thought about during the week. I hope you find it meaningful.
One hot afternoon... a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.
- Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

One of the things I intend to do in this letter is share a recipe for and photo of something delicious I have made recently. Unfortunately, I did not take a photo of a recent treat that was quite excellent, but I would like to comment this incredible recipe to you, for a Pink Champagne and Strawberry Cake, from a lovely local blog called Raspberri Cupcake. I have made the cake several times, sometimes with the champagne buttercream frosting, which is a bit tricky, and sometimes without it. Honestly, it works very well with just plain, ol' fashioned cream. But unlike other strawberry shortcake-type recipes, the strawberries are baked directly into the cake, so it's deliciously moist and strawberry-y. It's a wonderful recipe and I highly, highly recommend it.

There is so much in the world for us all if we only have the eyes to see it, and the heart to love it, and the hand to gather it to ourselves -- so much in men and women, so much in art and literature, so much everywhere in which to delight and for which to be thankful.
-L.. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island

One of my recent reading interests has been books about mountain climbing. A peculiar interest, perhaps, from someone no more likely to climb a mountain than to visit the moon or win the nobel prize for physics, but I found the stories of men and women taking incredible risks for something so fleeting to be inherently intriguing. But the best book I read among the many was a wonderful short work of non-fiction by Litsa Dremousis called Altitude Sickness, about her close friend and his death while climbing on Mt Rainier.

There were two things I especially loved about it: first, her prose is just amazing and beautiful and honest. Take this passage:

Sometimes it's easier for me to be angry at Neal than it is to miss him.

After he died with his food in my refrigerator and his things scattered throughout my home, I purchased an antique trunk in which I store what are now artifacts: his clothes, his tools, one of his backpacks, and the gifts and cards he gave me throughout the years.

In the early months, I scoured my condo for items related to Neal, despite the agony I incurred when I found them. Handmade soap from Zanzibar, books from New York, the vintage garnet ring for my 40th birthday: all made him feel near, as if he were on another transglobal jaunt and would return soon.

I experienced a sickening thus when I realized I'd found the last piece: that his object, like his life, were finite.

I dream of writing like that.

The other thing I love about this book is its depiction of an incredibly close but platonic relationship between a man and a woman. As someone whose most important relationship is with a man I love in an entirely non-romantic way, it was special to see that kind of closeness represented in prose, despite its awful ending.

Its a wonderful book and I can't implore you enough to read it.

So that's the end of my very first letter. I hope you have enjoyed it. I will write again soon.

With love,