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 I should tell you that my basement, if the organizers of this thing were in my basement, they would have rescinded the invitation.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.
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”.
Then I’d tape it up. “Pants you’re always going to be too fat to fit into, so let it go”. You know? And taping that up. So this is what I had to encounter yesterday when I revisit my basement, because of course, we’ve not unpacked these boxes. You know, I never did find that book; I don’t have it up here to show you. But it is in my basement. What I did, and this happens to me all the time in my life, as somebody who writes non-fiction, this is the sort of stuff I’m constantly having in mind, and that is, “What does this experience mean? What’s the greater meaning?” I thought it was a really wonderful metaphor for what I want to talk to you about today. And that is our deepest treasures are buried in the crappy detritus in our lives.
You know, so much of that “reach for the extraordinary” is bound up in the self-doubt, the self-loathing, the darkness, the difficulty, the things that we bury. I think that everyone who came up here and stood before you today knows that to be true. That what we accomplish is built on what we failed at, what we tried at; what we hope to do better someday. That is too, the title of my talk, “Radical Sincerity”.
We often use this word “radical”, I think, in a way that isn’t quite what it means. We think of “radical”, we think of people who are outside, and extreme, and agitating in some way, or bringing in outside ideas. But really, the definition of the word “radical” is of the root, of the origin, the fundamental. And sincere means “true”.
So what I want to talk about today is that I do think, the journey to extraordinary is through the true root. Finding, in ourselves, that voice, that we know to be true, that we recognize as the voice that makes the most sense. Sometimes it’s in the form of a calling. Like that calling I think I experienced when I got that little booklet that I can’t bring you. And sometimes, it comes later in life, when you realize that you’re on the wrong path, or you’re married to the wrong person, or you never thought you wanted to have kids, and suddenly, you realize that you must. I think that that is such a powerful, and fundamental ingredient, of that reach to extraordinary.