As told to Cheryl Strayed on her pandemic-inspired podcast “Sugar Calling”
by Ariel Parrella-Aureli
Throughout the recent uncertain, unknown and sometimes painful life moments brought on by the pandemic and the racial reckoning happening all across the globe, Cheryl Strayed is there to give me some comfort and peace of mind when it all feels like it’s boiling over. I first discovered Strayed when I read her inspirational memoir Wild two years ago, which I admit sat on my bookshelf for way too long. Strayed is a New York Times bestselling author known for Wild, her novels Brave Enough and Torch, and Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a compilation of her “Dear Sugar” advice columns originally published on The Rumpus.
Strayed’s stories are both personal and universally timeless, there to give anyone a big hug or tough love — or perhaps both. She always seems to know exactly what to say and has been widely recognized in her career for her wisdom, honesty and tapping into raw emotions. But when the pandemic began, she admits she, for once, didn’t know what to say. So, she sought advice from select authors who have inspired her own writing journey and interviewed them for her new podcast called “Sugar Calling” from the New York Times.
Each episode focuses on an elder writer who has greatly influenced the modern literary landscape, featuring George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, Pico Ayer, Judy Blume, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Billy Collins and Joy Harjo. The eight-episode podcast began in April and ended May 20; in the last episode, she said she thought eight would be enough to have the world back to normal. Clearly that’s not the case, so Strayed hinted there will be a second season.
I was incredibly moved by the advice and stories shared on the podcast by some of my favorite writers that I decided to round up five bits of advice from them that we could all use right now. And if you like this, you will also like the brand new American Writers Museum Podcast, which launched in June featuring conversations with an array of writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Saeed Jones, Laila Lalami, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and more.
“This is when the world needs our eyes, hearts and minds.”
In the first episode with Saunders, a bestselling author and professor known for his books Lincoln in the Bardo, Tenth of December, Pastoralia and more, he admits that not having all the answers during a time of uncertainty is hard for even him. But what he does know is that documenting what is happening in the world through writing is imperative to our better understanding and resolution of the issues and feelings we are all experiencing. Hopefully, he says, recording history and living through the pandemic can help us look afresh at what we do and change the ways that we live that can help us thrive and find new “pockets of pleasure” on the other side.
“Time is limited — why waste it being worried and afraid?”
A big admirer of Atwood, I was so happy to hear her speak with such candor and uncensored raw ease about her experience living through the pandemic. In the second episode, the 80-year-old author talks about her upbringing in Canada and living through World War II and how her parents’ survival of the 1918 pandemic has shaped her life in the current pandemic. Her advice is simple: don’t waste time being afraid but instead focus on positive change and take this time to push your reset button: “How are we going to be different?” she asks.
“We have much less power over the world than we imagine but we have much more power over how we respond to the world than we suspect.”
Iyer has mastered life’s impermanence and constant change; I’m trying to be more like him. His honest perspective in the third episode is inspiring to say the least. He talks about losing all of his belongings in a California forest fire in 1990 and how that experience liberated him from past habits and opened the door to travel writing, the thing he is now most famous for. The author, who is also big on spirituality and solitude, gives advice on how we can react to the current circumstances and continue to find joy in the sorrow by helping others. He sees the pandemic as a natural way the world intervened so we as a society can reassess and rebalance our priorities.
“[Dogs] are constant reminders that life reveals the best of itself when we live fully in the moment and extend our unconditional love. And it is very true that the most tender, uncomplicated, most generous part of our being blossoms without any effort when it comes to the love of a dog.”
The prolific YA and children’s author expresses in episode five that there is no action to be taken right now except enjoy the beauty around you and lessen the control we might be searching for. And what better being can showcase that than our favorite furry-legged companions? I think there is none. Blume’s keen discernment of unconditional love toward a dog is such a relevant reminder to live in the present and be happy with the important pleasures around us (even though Blume doesn’t have a dog but she blames that as a choice by her husband).
“I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear. I release you. You are my beloved and hated twin, but now I don’t know you as myself.”
U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo ends the season strong with advice on the guardians above us and with a reading of her fear poem I Give You Back, written early in her career but has a place in our lives today. She talks about the ability to look back on life and not be afraid of death and the power of letting go of feelings that do not serve us. She says the poem saved her life; maybe it can save you too. You can watch Harjo read the full poem here.
Ariel Parrella-Aureli is a freelance journalist who focuses on arts, culture, accessibility, diversity and transportation, among some other topics. She writes for Block Club Chicago, the Chicago Reader, Streetsblog Chicago and Chicago Magazine, and has been published in various other local and national sites including the Chicago Tribune, Sojourners, Curbed, Newcity, and more. She is also the editor-in-chief of the hyperlocal news site LoganSquarist, dedicated to Logan Square, and works part-time at WBBM Newsradio as a digital content producer. When she’s not reporting, she enjoys reading, cooking, playing with dogs and listening to podcasts.