Ask Polly: Are You Sure?

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Dear Polly,

Remember the Dear Sugar “WTF?” letter?

Well, it’s Christmastime, and soon another year will begin. As a slightly different take on WTF, can you answer me this:

Are you sure?

Is Faith a Four-Letter Word


Thanks for reminding me of that Dear Sugar “WTF?” letter. It’s gut-wrenching and inspired.

On the same day that Dear Sugar column was published, June 3, 2010, I also answered an advice letter on my blog. The 2,388-word letter also asked some big existential “WTF?”-style questions. My reply was 2,880 words long, for a total of 5,268 words.

Dear Sugar’s column that day in June — letter and response — totaled 871 words. This included the story of being molested by her grandfather, losing her mother, mercy-killing a baby bird with a broken neck, and the bold but still gentle admonition to the letter writer to “ask better questions.” Also, this: “The fuck is your life. Answer it.”

My blog post, on the other hand, strikes me now as a rambling, unfocused precursor to every tepid-guy-based existential call-and-response I’ve ever written. Sugar says she used to jack off her grandfather; I say I’ve been feeling really dizzy lately. Sugar says she misses her dead mother; I say, “I miss drinking games where you point at someone’s face really aggressively and shout YOU YOU YOU YOU! DRINK DRINK DRINK YOU FUCKING PUSSY DRINK!” Sugar says she killed a baby bird with her bare hands; I say something about eating lukewarm soup.

So when you mention this poetic column by Cheryl Strayed and then ask me, “Are you sure?” my answer to you is: HELL, NO. I am not sure. I am never sure.

What does it take to be sure? Do you have to build a religion around your choices? Cheryl Strayed strikes me as the kind of person who’s done that. She changed her name to “Strayed” after she cheated on her husband in the wake of her mother’s death. After my father died, I poured a beer on top of my head and announced to a room full of drunk Oakland hipsters that it didn’t matter what I did, nothing any of us did would ever matter, we’d all be dead some day and nothing about us would last. I didn’t cheat on anyone or change my name like Strayed did. I didn’t try heroin or hike thousands of miles by myself. I could never even camp out in a tent alone without tossing and turning all night, picturing grizzly bears ripping my face off or serial killers chopping me into a million bits.

All I did after my dad died was fly home and lie around my mother’s house, crying. When I was finally exhausted by all that crying, I started ripping out the ivy and the kudzu that had taken over my mother’s backyard. If I wrote a book like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, it would have to be about an epic battle against overgrown vines, waged day after day in the same scrappy backyard in Durham, North Carolina. Every page would just be me, sweating and swearing, covered in dirt and bugs. After four hours of this, I would stop and take a bath. Then I would sit and try to write about my father. I wanted to create something brilliant out of my sadness, but the words refused to come.

Vines, my book about mourning by pulling on ivy and kudzu all day, would never hit No. 1 on the best-seller list. Reese Witherspoon would never agree to star in the movie based on the book. Even if she did, no one would rave about how affecting it was to watch her yank on kudzu, covered in dirt and bugs.

It would be nice to be the kind of person who did things like hike thousands of miles instead of just digging furiously in the dirt. Cheryl Strayed is talented and brave, and this column she wrote about her disfigured friend is one of the saddest and most memorable pieces I’ve ever read. I met Strayed once, and she was beautiful and confident and had great stories to tell. I admire her a lot. She’s a true romantic — she’s romantic about struggle, romantic about loss, romantic about cheating, even. That’s something that very few people can pull off. She doesn’t like easy answers, but her writing has a way of suggesting that we can all find answers to our problems if we work hard enough. She suggests these things without writing 2,880 words about them.

I am less sure than that. I am less romantic. I am less brave. I am a smaller person. I am an angrier person, too, I think. I swear a lot. I don’t like a lot of people. This is probably because I don’t love myself enough, because I’m confused, because I second-guess myself. BUT I’M NOT SURE.

Shame creeps into the edges of the frame. It’s not that easy to grow. It’s not easy to take a hard look at yourself and say, “I feel like I’m not doing enough. I don’t know if I have enough to give.”

What does an unsure person have to offer this world? What does an angry, fearful person have to share? Do I need so many words? Should I be asking better questions?

I don’t know much. I think I need a lot of words sometimes, to figure out where regrets and insecurities might add up to some rough approximation of acceptance and hope. I need to work the numbers until they make sense. Some days I feel like an also-ran, a has-been, a never-was. Sometimes I don’t want to do anything but read good books. Sometimes I’m exhausted by the fact that I require a steady flow of exercise and green vegetables just to keep my fucking head off the floor.

And then a cloud floats in front of the sun, and a crow swoops by my window, and my dog curls in a ball and tucks her nose under her tail, and I know that all I can do is try. All I can do is choose to believe that a sloppy, uncertain person has something to offer someone out there. Some people find bravery comforting. Other people find comfort in the words of a total chickenshit.

I’m not sure about that last part, actually. But I’m sure that faith is a five-letter word. I don’t have a lot of faith, but I can count.

We are small and inconsequential, you and me. We aren’t the best that ever was. We aren’t quite right in the head, usually. We make bad decisions, and it’s not romantic. But I’ve chosen to believe that there is hope for us. I feel pretty sure that this moment matters, with the kids in the other room, yelping at each other, and the heat hissing through the vents, and this sour taste building in my mouth. I know I’ll take my dogs for a run even though I don’t feel like it. I know I’ll vacuum and pack my suitcase for home.

And I know that I’ll try to be better than I actually am when I’m back in my mother’s house for the holidays, sleeping in my childhood bedroom with my husband and my kids, playing Monopoly with my nephews, cooking beet soup and making pierogi in an overheated house, saying, “Yes, yes, of course, sure, I can do that” to everything, but secretly feeling a little pissy, thanks to too many sugar cookies and glasses of red wine the night before. I am going to try to be a good daughter and a good wife and a good mother and a good sister. I am going to try to be good. I’m not sure I will succeed. I’m never sure.

This morning I was lost in a haze of worries over my upcoming Christmas vacation when the dogs started barking like crazy. I looked out the front window and saw a coyote running down the middle of our road. It was a big one, and it looked scared. The dogs could tell it wasn’t a dog. Where was this wild thing headed? What would happen to this poor, wild thing, running scared across suburban streets on a Sunday morning? What was it looking for?

I watched it cross a busier street down the block, then it disappeared in the distance. I pictured it smeared across the next busy intersection. Then I stopped myself. I chose to believe that it would find its way back to the scrabbly hills above our house, somehow. I chose to believe that it would drink from a cool stream and eat a rabbit for breakfast and take a nap under a wild oak tree.

Some of us move in ways that seem fated, pre-ordained, a slow but definitive march to glory. Others of us move like poor, wild things, running scared. We are unsure, but we’re still running. We will always be unsure. There is still hope for us. We might just make something beautiful, some day. We might just surprise ourselves. I choose to believe that. I choose to believe it, every single day.


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All letters to become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

Ask Polly: Are You Sure?