Radical Sincerity: Cheryl Strayed at TEDxConcordiaUPortland (Full Transcript)

Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed – American memoirist, novelist, essayist and podcast host

Thanks for coming, everyone.

I didn’t have any religious schooling as a kid. My family did not go to church, so I’m always surprised to say, that my first revelation happened in a church. I was six or seven years old, first or second grade, and I had spent the night at a friend’s house, on a Saturday night. And in the morning, I went with her family to church. The parents went off to the service, and I went off with my friend to the little Sunday school.

And at this Sunday school, we were given these booklets, and what the booklets were, were these reproductions of watercolors, that were pictures of wildflowers, and butterflies, and clouds. All the natural wonders. And on the opposite page to these pictures were little poems, and lyric descriptions of the images. I knew I loved books by then; I’d been a reader, my mother had always read to me, and I had already fostered a real love of books.

But I never had encountered the feeling that I had when I read those descriptions. I felt, for the first time, I saw the power of words. I saw that they could harness a beauty that absolutely pierced me. I remember it as a moment of real change in my life. It was at that moment that I knew, I didn’t know what it was to be a writer; I didn’t have any idea someone like me could be one. But I knew that I was going to spend my life trying to harness that. I was going to try to, with words, capture that kind of beauty.

So yesterday, when I realized I was going to tell you about that first revelation, I thought, since I don’t have any fancy slides or videos like others have, I just have me, I thought I would bring that book, because I ended up saving it all these years, sort of by accident. It was in my basement, somewhere, I knew that. I went downstairs to my basement. I should tell you that my basement, if the organizers of this thing were in my basement, they would have rescinded the invitation. Because it really clearly identifies me as not an extraordinary human being at all, in fact, a rather shameful one. Maybe some of you relate; I’m hoping some of you relate.

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I have an excuse as to why my basement is so hideous. About a year and a half ago, my husband and I, and our kids, moved. The last couple of years have been the busiest of our lives. We got ourselves in this situation where suddenly, it was like in three days, we had to be out of our house, and in this other house. Our kids are six and seven, so they have all this junk that kids accumulate, and all these years, we’d just been throwing it in the basement.

What happened is that I had to, in three days, box everything up, and just move it to the new house. I didn’t get to go through things like a good citizen does, and bring things to Goodwill and the dump. I keep saying, “We moved”, but actually, my husband who’s in the room, a very, extraordinary man, but useless at packing. It was like the cats were more assistance in this move than he was. I’m by myself, in the middle of the night in the basement, boxing things up.

On top of this, I have a 101 degree fever, because I’ve suddenly become ill. I had reached this moment, in the middle of the night, on one of these nights packing, where instead of being reasonable and writing things like “kitchen utensils” and “kids toys” on the boxes, the inner me was really coming out. So on the boxes I would write, “useless crap you’re too pathetic to get rid of”.

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