For as long as I can remember, I have had a copy of Bartlett's Poems for Occasions on my book shelf. I took it with me to college, to Florida, to the first house I ever owned, and now to graduate school. It stands upright, lime-green-spined and eager to find its way into my life, into my occasions--the death of a family member, the birth of a baby, a best friend's beautiful wedding.
But what I have started to notice as I've grown up and life has grown complicated is how few of the poems fit the moments in between these momentous occasions. Like, what does one read when he finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him? Sorry, Bartlett, but Sir Thomas Wyatt's "And wilt thou leave me thus" just doesn't help a person funnel his rage into anything more productive than throwing your perky-spined self into a wall.
In reality, we need something longer to distract us, something more relevant to the times, and something more true to the cacophony of feelings we are experiencing. Every now and then we need something a little more relevant and long-lasting than seventeenth-century poetry.
Like when you find out that your ex, who just happens to literally be the worst person on the face on the earth (I'm using literally correctly here, but I also am bias), suddenly has the life he has always dreamed of--a beautiful, blonde wife, kids, a book deal, a teaching job at a fantastic university--while, at the same time, you, with two almost completed graduate degrees, find yourself to be totally unemployable.
This is a tough one, because the feelings are... well... a lot: anger, rage, and an overwhelming sense of he-does-not-deserve-to-eat-dog-shit-let-alone-teach-at-Harvard. Not to mention these feelings tend to ricochet out of control before you can get your hand on one to name and feel entirely. But underneath, you'll have to admit, the strongest emotion is jealousy.
For that reason, I recommend Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things. It's a collection of letters from Dear Sugar, an advice column she wrote beautifully and graciously and anonymously before Wild was published to Oprah-wide acclaim. As Sugar, Strayed is the voice of compassion and kindness that we all need in our lives, even when we're thirty pounds overweight and $13,000 in debt (I'M SPEAKING HYPOTHETICALLY HERE). If I could choose an inner voice, my very own Jiminy Cricket, it would be Sugar. Brutal and raw and always good, Sugar tells us the things we need to hear even when we don't want to hear it: to be brave, to face down the darkest parts of ourselves, and to be kind to ourselves along the way.
Just listen to what she has to say to someone who has written about being a jealous and awful person: We are all savages inside. We all want to be the chosen, the beloved, the esteemed. There isn’t a person reading this who hasn’t at one point or another had that why not me? voice pop into the interior mix when something good has happened to someone else. But that doesn’t mean you should allow it to rule your life, sweet pea. It means you have work to do.