Tag Archives: Cheryl Strayed

On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump

Nicole Chung | “All American,” from Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America | September 2017 | 16 minutes (4,037 words)

There were so many disturbing moments in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election that it’s difficult to identify any particular one as the worst. Up there at the top of the list: Donald Trump narrowing his eyes and shaking his head as he called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman,” during the final debate. He probably didn’t count on feminists laying claim to the words he’d used to level an insult. At the post-Inauguration Women’s March on Washington, many women bore signs proudly emblazoned with those words. And on October 3rd, Picador will release Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, an essay anthology edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, featuring essays by 23 women including Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit, Jessica Valenti, Katha Pollitt, and Samantha Irby, among others. The following essay from the collection, by writer and Catapult editor Nicole Chung, captures the frustrations of dealing with Trump supporters, including one’s own family members.  

Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor


When I made an appointment to get my hair cut two weeks after the election, it was with a new stylist, a white woman in her 30s with a streak of purple in her hair. She commented on the loose, rumpled waves that show up whenever my hair gets damp, and I explained that the slight curl appeared only after I had children. She welcomed the avenue for small talk: How many kids did I have; how old were they; did I have a photo? I pulled out my phone and showed her the picture on my home screen, my two girls at the beach.

Oh,” she said, visibly surprised. “Is their dad American?” Yes, I told her. So am I. She went on to ask “what” my children were, and whether I thought their coloring was “more olive, or more yellowish like yours?” Later, as she snipped away, she revealed that she and her father and her boyfriend had all voted for Donald Trump.

Though her comments about my kids were the most offensive, it’s her assumption about my nationality that has stuck with me in the weeks since. She identified my husband as “American” when what she meant was “white,” isolating and othering me in the process. There is nothing out of the ordinary about being taken for a foreigner when you’re Asian American; by itself, without years of similar accumulated remarks, her slip might not have bothered me. But in the same month that Donald Trump was elected to our nation’s highest office, this white woman’s unthinking words served as a stinging reminder of just how many people in this country look at me and see not an American, not someone like them, but an outsider, intrinsically different.

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How To Be, In Silence

Dalai Lama at Thomas Merton's grave. Photo by Jim Forest, Flickr

The social world, for all of its fundamental gifts — love, empathy, the lessons arguing provides — obscures the whole self, allowing each of us to mute what is harder to absorb about ourselves in a din of habit and distraction. When an artist breaks through that din, which seems to grow ever louder, she reflects solitude’s crisis: the challenge of being, unmasked.

“I wanted to be quiet in a nonquiet situation,” the composer John Cage wrote in 1948, while he was still formulating a solution that would eventually lead to his famous innovation of writing music with no notes at all. In 1949, the most famous monk of the last century — Thomas Merton — lamented that even cloistered religious people had become too conscious of what their renunciations might do, keeping silence as a form of payback for all the clatter in the world, instead of accessing the real self that was no self, that couldn’t show off by fasting or rising at midnight to sing. In 1961, as part of a dialogue with the Zen master D.T. Suzuki, Merton found it necessary to remind the era’s many spiritual seekers that Paradise, if not Heaven, was a place on earth that could only be achieved by ceasing the constant reactivity that had become the human condition, “the emptiness and purity of heart which had belonged to Adam and Eve in Eden,” where they sought “paradise within themselves, or rather above and beyond themselves.” This was the same goal the secular pilgrim Cheryl Strayed sought when she walked 1100 miles alone up the Pacific Crest Trail in 1994. She found liberation from self while lost above the treeline, shouting into silence she ultimately couldn’t affect, realizing, was she wrote in her memoir, “Everything but me seemed utterly certain of itself. The sky didn’t wonder where it was.”

Ann Powers, writing for NPR about how musicians confront solitude. Her piece uses recent albums by Kendrick Lamar and Sufjan Stevens as a lens to explore the subject.

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On Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ and the Redemption Narrative

Reese Witherspoon in Wild.

Like Dante, then, Strayed is on a spiritual journey, beginning in damnation, bound for deliverance. That makes Wild a redemption narrative — and that, in turn, helps explain its popularity, because redemption narratives are some of the oldest, most compelling, and most ubiquitous stories we have. We enshrine nature writing in the canon — you were probably assigned Thoreau and Emerson et al. in high school — but it is redemption narratives that dominate our culture. Among other things, you can hear them in religious services all across the land and in AA meetings every day of the week.

Wild embodies this ancient story. Or, more precisely, it embodies the contemporary American version thereof, where the course is not from sin to salvation but from trauma to transformation: I was abject, dysfunctional, and emotionally shattered, but now I see. This version has more train-wreck allure than the traditional one (being a mess is generally more spectacular than merely being an unbeliever), and it is also more inclusive. Identifying with it requires no particular faith, beyond the faith that a bad life can get better.

The American redemption narrative, then, is entertaining, accessible, and privately comforting. And, in the case of Wild, it is culturally comforting as well. Before Strayed sets off on her journey, she embodies much of what America fears about young lower-class women: She does drugs, sleeps around, gets an abortion. Eleven hundred miles and 315 pages later, she has sobered up, sworn off the one-night stands, and become as wholesome and appealing as the girl next door.

In New York magazine, Kathryn Schulz takes a walk with the bestselling author and explores what made her book such a huge hit.

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‘If You Want to Be Famous, Don’t Be a Writer’

I’m always curious about the relationship between ambition and fame. On one hand, the desire to be a famous writer can be useful—you have to have drive, ambition. You need to be balls-out doing what you’re going to do to have any hope of success. But on the other hand, so many writers conflate ambition with wanting to be famous. Particularly in the era of internet fame, whatever that is. Did you aspire to being a famous writer?

I want be recognized for beautiful work, for good work, for real work. I really want to be recognized for that. Which is different than saying I want to be famous.

If you want to be famous, don’t be a writer. When I was first thinking of myself as a writer back in my teens, the shorthand for that was fame. But then I started to really understand what writing was and who writers were. Who were the writers I valued the most as a young woman learning to write? They were people like Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Mary Gaitskill, Toni Morrison.

Those people I just named are super famous in our world, but most of the world doesn’t know them. So pretty quickly, to me it wasn’t about fame—it was about accomplishment. Once you let go of that fame thing, it’s the first step in really being able to focus on doing good work.

Because you can’t fake it. That’s the deal with writing. You can’t fake it. You read an Alice Munro story—it’s there or it’s not, you know? So I let that go pretty early on.

With fame, you have to get over it. You do. Because you will actually not succeed because of it.

Scratch Magazine interviews best-selling author Cheryl Strayed. (The interview is free to read after logging in.)

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Photo: Sam Beebe

Reading List: Mother’s Day

With Mother’s Day on the horizon, I chose “mothers/relationship with moms” as the theme of my list this week:

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1. My Mom (Mary H. K. Choi, Aeon, April 2013)

A deceptively simple title belies a gorgeous, funny, sometimes dark essay in which Choi attempts to communicate her strange affection for her mother.


2. The Love of My Life (Cheryl Strayed, The Sun, Sept. 2002)

The indomitable Strayed explores the unexpected intersection of sex, death, grief, marriage, and, above all, her overwhelming love for her mother.


3. The Beautiful Daughter: How My Korean Mother Gave Me the Courage to Transition (Andy Marra, The Huffington Post, Nov. 2012)

Andy Marra returns to Korea to find her biological family and ponders whether or not to reveal that she’s transgender.


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Four advice columnists, Dear Sugar’s Cheryl Strayed, Salon’s Cary Tennis, Slate’s Emily Yoffe, and The Globe and Mail’s Lynn Coady, discuss what it’s like to give advice to people online:

Are there common threads or themes that you see over and over in the questions you get? Questions that seem to be real problems in a lot of people’s lives that they keep writing in about in variations?

Cheryl: Yes, a ton. There are a lot of people with broken hearts. And they’ll never get over so and so leaving them.

Emily: Yeah, I never run those because the answer is the same and it’s very boring. It’s just, ‘Move forward.’ The guy I thought I’d kill myself over when I was 27 I can’t remember the name of now. There are some big general categories. One is cubicle land. The horrors of the farters, the breathers, the hummers, the eaters. I can only do a limited number of ‘My husband looks at porn.’

“My Boss Has Body Odour and I Have Sex with My Twin.” — Britt Harvey, Hazlitt Magazine

‘More Will Be Revealed’: Advice to a Grieving Father

Cheryl Strayed’s collection of advice pieces, Tiny Beautiful Things, is one of our favorite collections. Here, she responds to a father who is grieving the loss of his son, who was killed by a drunk driver:

17. You have the power to withstand this sorrow. We all do, though we all claim not to. We say, ‘I couldn’t go on,’ instead of saying we hope we won’t have to. That’s what you’re saying in your letter to me, Living Dead Dad. You’ve made it so fucking long without your sweet boy and now you can’t take it anymore. But you can. You must.

18. More will be revealed. Your son hasn’t yet taught you everything he has to teach you. He taught you how to love like you’ve never loved before. He taught you how to suffer like you’ve never suffered before. Perhaps the next thing he has to teach you is acceptance. And the thing after that, forgiveness.

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