Cheryl Strayed from Dear Sugar says, "For every person, there’s a route we didn’t take."

Judy Tsuei

I’ve been reading Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things these last couple of weeks and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t wish I were as prosaic as she is…

The entire book is a compilation of her (formerly anonymous) stint as the Dear Sugar columnist, where individuals wrote to her seeking advice on love and life.

Yesterday, I came across one entry where a man writes to “Sugar” to ask if he should become a father. He’s in his early 40s. He feels like he could go either way.

Her response?

“There’s a poem I love by Tomas Transtromer called ‘The Blue House.’ I think of it every time I consider questions such as yours about the irrevocable choices we make.

The poem is narrated by a man who is standing in the woods near his house. When he looks at his house from this vantage point, he observes that it’s as if he’d just died and he is now ‘seeing the house from a new angle.’…

There is a transformative power in seeing the familiar from a new, more distant perspective. It’s in this stance that Transtromer’s narrator is capable of seeing his life for what it is while also acknowledging the lives he might have had…

Every life, Transtromer writes, ‘has a sister ship,’ one that follows ‘quite another route’ than the one we ended up taking.

We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the people we might have been live a different, phantom life than the people we are.

It goes on from there, but this part absolutely struck me, because that’s where I feel like I am right now…

Recently, my daughter has been remarking about how much she misses her father when she’s with me, then telling him how much she misses me when she’s with him.

I patiently hold space for her feelings, but admittedly, it drums up a lot of unsorted feelings in me, so I’ve been going back to my journaling practice to figure out why…

There’s an intuitive session I do with clients, where I ask your Infinite Self all the answers that you’ve wanted to know. The approach uses my 20+ years of interviewing people of all backgrounds and echelons of society, so I ask you astute questions while holding a special container of energetic space so you can find your own way home.

This is also what I do with myself.

In my journaling practice, I write down a question I have. Sit with it for a few moments, and inevitably in that silence, I’ll find the calm, quiet answer I know is coming from my soul’s infinite wisdom — more than what my brain has the capacity to know.

It’s through this process that I’ve realized what it is… every time my daughter says she misses her father, I’m reminded of the path we could no longer walk down together, he and I or all three of us as a family.

I promised her, before she was ever an idea and the thought of motherhood was a faraway maybe in my life. It was then, in my teens and mid-20s, that I promised myself if ever I became a mother, I would do everything in my power to create a family dynamic very different than the one I had growing up — I’d want to inspire peace over conflict, joy over anger, connection over tearing one another down.

I wanted to have a family with two healthy parents who loved each other immensely and poured that love into our child.

Turns out, that wasn’t going to happen.

Yes, I would still love my daughter immensely, but what I thought family would be… well, it’s become that phantom life.

I used to sneak into my daughter’s bedroom in Austin after she went to sleep, just to apologize to her energetically. I’d silently cry with deep remorse, knowing that I would soon be disappointing her with the dissolution of my marriage. The family she knew was vaporizing. I had tried my hardest and it wasn’t enough.

I don’t know if one day it’ll happen in a completely wonderful way, but what I do know is that it won’t happen with the person who happens to be my daughter’s father.

So, every single time she aches in missing him, I have to remind myself that sometimes, the best possible outcome involves diverging from the path you thought you would take, one that might cut you up along the way, so that you can arrive somewhere new.

Somewhere better.

At the end of Cheryl’s note to this “Undecided” writer, she says:

“If I could go back in time I’d make the same choice in a snap. And yet, there remains my sister life. All the other things I could have done instead…

I’ll never know, and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.


If you feel like you’re behind in life or that others around you look like they’ve got it together and you’re wondering how you fell short, then maybe it’s important to approach yourself with a special kind of compassion that there’s a sister life that’s simply not yours…

And maybe, just maybe, you can make this life beautiful, too.

Here’s to writing that wondrous story!

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Judy Tsuei