The poem is “Voyager” by Mary Ruefle
I have become an orchid
washed in on the salt white beach.
what can I make of it now
that might please you—
this life, already wasted
and still strewn with
I would start out this post by apologizing for the delay in Prousting, but with a slew of job applications, visiting friends, and general late-winter apathy, I have been neglecting my blog duties and feel I should not be ashamed of putting life first. I have to thank Nora for her last post, for having the guts to write honestly and with the raw truth that I am sometimes afraid to articulate in writing. Sometimes there is so much chaos and uncertainty and disappointment in life that I do not have the heart to put it into art as well; sometimes there are those days that go by in a haze of clouds and tea and endless cover letters, and it is such a relief to laugh with friends, drink a glass of wine, and write about the reasons to go on. But great writing, I suppose, is not afraid to face the darkness. Great writing manages to bring in the good with the bad, to show beauty along with sorrow, to ride the emotional roller coaster of life (or even a single day), to speak those things we keep to ourselves.
Last Friday, Nora and I took a field trip to the Morgan Library in Midtown, our favorite museum, where we saw the installation “Marcel Proust and Swann’s Way: 100th Anniversary” on the day it opened. The small but full room contains case upon case of Proust’s handwritten letters and manuscript drafts, on loan from the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. A celebration of the 100th anniversary of Swann’s Way, it seemed the perfect way to celebrate this project, and an excuse to meet up. We walked among the papers of a man who seems to have become a character in our own lives, reading the inserts and substitutions, the letters he wrote to friends, trying to describe his endeavor. The famous first line of the novel, “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” had been inserted in place of a long, scratched-out paragraph. Entire scene progressions and volume names had changed; Proust’s narrative of a man grieving for his lost mother (something the author himself went through at the time) became something far more lyrical, far more complex.
We walked out of the museum and down Madison Avenue, all the way from 35th to 4th street, where we walked across Washington Square Park, got $3 felafel, and ate it on the steps of a Village brownstone. We talked about our lives, work, change. Nothing right now is certain: soon we will (hopefully, in my case!) have new jobs, Nora a new apartment, Nick and Sam, my very best friends, are moving to the other side of Manhattan, and I will miss their close proximity terribly. Soon it will be spring, and the sun will come back. I am learning, painfully but steadily, that change is not always a bad thing. I hate growing up, I told her. Just when you think you’re done, it’s like you have so much further to go. She walked me down to Houston, and we hugged goodbye.
Here’s the thing about this period in your life, which everyone seems to know but no one is wiling to say: sometimes it really sucks. Sometimes it is the greatest time of your life, full of possibility and independence, and random sing-along nineties dance parties, and walks across the Brooklyn Bridge. And sometimes it feels almost impossible, like nothing is certain and the future is still so very far away. So here, finally, is my attempt at raw truth. There are days when I find myself clutching at straws, filling out application after application in a seemingly endless, dogged pursuit of that one thing I have wanted since the age of twelve: life as a writer. Some days I get up at 8:30, make tea, and write eight cover letters by sunset; others I languish in bed, watching Downton Abbey and chatting with friends until ten.
Last Wednesday, emotionally exhausted, physically spent, and with a headache that came from not enough sleep and too much chardonnay the night before, I lay staring at my ceiling, teary-eyed, wondering how on earth I am going to manage to get my life to the place where I want it to be. In a sudden, childish impulse, I crawled under my covers and curled up, staring at the down of my comforter, yellow with morning light. I wish I could just stay here, I thought, in a moment of uncharacteristic angst. I wish I could just stay here and never have to get a job, not have to socialize or go on dates or grow up. I allowed myself to wallow for several long minutes. Then I flung off my covers, turned on Taylor Swift’s “22.”
We’re happy free confused and lonely at the same time
It’s miserable and magical oh yeah
As Taylor sang, I danced around my room, face still tearstained as I made my bed and fluffed my pillows, crying and laughing until I collapsed spread-eagled onto my bed, smiling in spite of myself. There is nothing that so perfectly embodies this feeling of inherent contradictions like a red-headed country singer, and all of the sudden I felt better again.
I don’t know about you but I’m feeling 22
Everything will be alright if you keep me next to you
You don’t know about me but I bet you want to
Everything will be alright if we just keep dancing like we’re 22
I am twenty-three now, but I am sure this song will ring true for a while yet. For once, I’m not going to go for some witty summation, some ending that is both poignant and funny. Being this age is hard and wonderful and takes constant adaptation and a wry sense of humor. I do not know what to tell you, my beloved readers, do not know how to make this uncertainty better except to grow with it.
And I do not know how to live, except to laugh with the people I love, to get up early, and to just keep dancing.
Did Proust invent the air-guitar? New evidence from 1898 suggests that perhaps he did.
I just had one of those weekends. One of those weekends that started on a high, swan-dived into wretchedness, and ended on confusing.
You may have heard, if you live in New York or check Instagram, that it was snowing on Friday. I was walking toward the train after a spinning class as the snow started to fall down, and I was sweaty but hopped up on endorphins and taken with how beautiful the city looked dusted with snow. I bought some groceries on my way home and didn’t feel guilty about eating brie.
I went out for dinner and drinks with my best friend and her boyfriend, and the boyfriend generously bought all of our dinners, and as we tramped back through the snow towards our homes we got into a spontaneous snowball fight. It’s fair to say I lost the snowball fight, but as I walked home, full of guacamole and margaritas that someone else had bought me, I thought about how much I love my best friend, how happy I was that she and her boyfriend are so in love with each other, how lucky I am to have a home in this city, how when both of us move from our parents apartments in SoHo to our own apartments in Brooklyn we’ll still be neighbors and we’ll find a new local Mexican place that serves relatively cheap food and strong margaritas.
Fast-forward 24 hours. I am standing on a street corner on the Lower East Side, convulsing with sobs and very cold because the bar of which I have just been unceremoniously thrown out is holding my coat hostage. In retrospect, of course, the crying was obviously unnecessary and melodramatic. Though I will say that the coat thing was not my fault. The tears were a direct result of being told that no, I could not have my coat back because no, that wasn’t my ticket, get out of line. Nor do I think you–yes, you, bouncers–should tell a patron to leave your bar just because she is crying, albeit loudly. Everyone has bad days (right?).
We have all been that girl. You have felt misunderstood and mistreated and probably wanted to cry about it. Which is what I did.
I think one of the things I connect to most in Proust is the flexibility and equal weight given to the range of emotions a single person can experience. He gives us pages upon pages of one emotion, and he makes it a unique emotion, one that has never been felt before and will never be felt again. And then, even though pages have elapsed, only a moment of “time” has actually passed, but in that moment enough has changed to give rise to a completely new emotion. And frequently that emotion is one that calls attention to one of our uglier “defects:”
In the human race, the frequency of the virtues that are identical in us all is not more wonderful than the multiplicity of the defects that are peculiar to each one of us.
What makes a good night go bad? Surely it can’t just be when a woman working the coat check refuses to give us back our coat on a brisk winter night. To really inspire waterworks, there has to be something else going on beneath the surface. I’m sure it was a confluence of “things,” but I feel like I’m not doing Proust nor this blog, any favors, by not giving equal weight to all my emotions. He would not, in his blog, write only about the moments that made him happy, the moments that gave him hope. He would not write a sanitized blog that precluded the mention of the fact that he was drunk on a Saturday night because someone he was related to or a potential employer might read it. And while I’m not aspiring to write the blog a 21st century Proust himself would write, I am trying to give an honest portrayal of what it means to be a 21st century 22-year-old reading Proust and resonating with what Proust has to say.
“The weekend” is a kind of Platonic ideal of a passage of time, a refuge to which we look forward, something we romanticize and fetishize the way Proust does the country girls he meets on vacation in Balbec. But sometimes our weekends do manage to live up to what we hope they will be. Sometimes those two days off from work are exactly what we need them to be. Sometimes they’re more.
And sometimes they’re far less. Sometimes they make you yearn for the banality of your work week. Sometimes you are at the place in your life and your search for stability that a middle aged woman telling you to get out of her face and the thought of a walk home without a coat is enough to make you sob. And even when you’re crying, and you know you shouldn’t be, you feel like you might as well give into the enormity of the weeping. Because even if you shouldn’t be crying, you are, and it feels better than it felt before you were crying and better than you will feel after you’re done.
Image via HBO Girls
For those who put great stock in it (pun intended), cooking is nothing short of a form of therapy. Stir together enough aromatic vegetables, caramelize enough onions and add chicken broth, and your worries will simmer away. At least that’s the hope. And that’s why, I believe, I find myself bowed over a hot stove on this bitter February night, cooking like the maniac I sometimes can be. I was going to heat up leftovers from last night, plain and simple. I had made braised short rib ragu and invited over the boys, and we had an anti-Super-Bowl party and watched Downton Abbey rather than the Ravens (I acknowledge my betrayal of my home team, but do not really care!). But when I went into my fridge tonight and spotted some rather sad looking parsnips, forgotten after I impulsively bought them at the Thompkins Square farmers market two weeks ago, I decided to make something with them.
Carrot Parsnip Soup forced me to go to the grocery store to get chicken stock, which inspired the purchase of a small chicken, and when I decided I was craving something sweet, Apple Cider Caramels seemed just the solution. So here I am, 9:30 on a Monday night, roasting a chicken, making soup, and boiling down apple cider into syrup. Twenty-three may be stressful, but at least I sublimate my energy into something tasty.
Fifty-one job applications down since December, and I continue to split my days between coffee shops and my apartment, with occasional forays to the most perfect library in the entire world—the Bryant Park branch of the NYPL. As much as I crave a day job, this limbo is not as panic-inducing as it first was, and I have forced myself to settle back into a comfortable routine: unemployed writer by day, black-uniformed hostess by night. And of course, sunlit days, bottles of red wine, and my friends’ laughter makes everything bearable.
The past two weeks have brought a poignant clarity to life, as some of the people I love most in this world have received wonderful and terrible news. Twenty-three is not old enough to start thinking about mortality and living for the present, but lately I have been forced to do so, and must conclude that the result is rather sobering. We are intensely lucky. I know I do not have to say that, but I feel it bears reiterating. We are healthy and loved and live in a changing world with an open future. My present lack of a 9 to 5 job is not quite as terrible as it once seemed, and I have to force myself to keep remembering that.
As for Marcel, I think it is about time we drop the pretense and admit that, while this blog is certainly Proust-Themed, it is not necessarily about Proust. It is about us, Nora and I and our friends and family and what it is like to be post-grad and underemployed and very happy and a little lost. It is about days spent taking trains to the Bronx to overlook the Palisade cliffs (as I did on Saturday) and nights standing on our apartment roofs, overlooking the low view of the city skyline. It is about apple cider caramels and oxford commas and being alive. But most of all, it is about writing. And no matter what, we will continue to write.
So for the time being, I have no deep wisdom to impart, merely a reflection on life at the moment (tinged by the aroma of roasting chicken). I want to congratulate Nick, my very best friend, on getting a job!!! I want to wish Sam a Happy Birthday tomorrow! I want to tell everyone from Baltimore to bask in what must be a very happy, purple city. And I want to thank Nora, my partner in Proust, and all of you, my readers, for giving me a reason to keep doing this, for reading our ramblings, for supporting our slow progress.
And happy Monday 😉 Here’s to sunny days and nights filled with good cooking.
“When we talk about this period of our lives in the future,” I told Nora the other day via gchat, “we will call these my ‘coffee shop days.'” She laughed (virtually), and I listed the different establishments in which I had spent the past week: Atlas Cafe on the Lower East Side, McNally Jackson in SoHo, OST Cafe on Avenue B and 12th street, and so on. Each had a distinct personality, a different sort of clientele, a different music selection. In each, I made myself at home, ordered some sort of tea or hot chocolate (I have learned by now that coffee and I do not mix well), opened my laptop, and settled into the same familiar search. It is time to find a real job.
My internship ended right before Christmas, and I have spent the weeks since returning to New York searching for a full-time job. So far, I have gotten a part-time position hostessing at a hip Asian restaurant in Chelsea, which begins next week. But until I get a job with an office and a desk, Atlas Cafe on Clinton Street has become my post-grad equivalent of Cafe Opus on Hamilton’s campus (where I could be found pretty much every minute I was not asleep, eating, or on Kylie’s couch). I get up before nine each day, shower, eat a granola bar, and head down the block to my makeshift office, where I sit and apply for jobs until it is time for lunch, when I usually come home and cook before returning to the effort. So far, it has been two weeks, almost thirty applications, and countless cups of tea. I can only hope, in the end, that all of these numbers will somehow add up to one job.
Until that time, I have rung in the New Year with the most wonderful friends, a few New York adventures, and a slew of visits to wonderful bookstores. Nora and I had brunch last Saturday in TriBeCa, and then walked around SoHo, stopping at Housing Works (a café, bookstore, and thrift store with locations throughout the city whose mission is to counteract the dual problems of homelessness and AIDS), to drop off clothing Nora was donating. We wandered between the shelves of this temple of literary second-chances, pulling out art books and anthologies, books on sexuality and zen gardens. We scoured the fiction shelves for Proust, but Marcel was nowhere to be found. I returned two days later to try to use this new location as a work spot, only to find the bookstore closed for an author event, and a line down the block of people waiting to go in. I joined them, for no reason other than knowing I had to be back in that space, whether productively or not, and spent the next hour listening to John and Hank Green rehearse for a show they were performing the next night at Carnegie Hall.
On Wednesday, my friend Lindsey came to visit me from Baltimore, and we spent two days zipping from one end of Manhattan to the other, eating macarons, seeking out gluten-free dim sum in Chinatown, and exploring the used book room of the Strand. Lindsey and I have been friends since the age of five, and literature has always been one of the main things we have in common (as well as eating, that is!). It was only natural, then, that we made the goal of her visit to find and visit the fabled secret bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I had first heard of Brazen Head books in the summer after my Junior year of college, when I worked for a historical magazine in Union Square and heard the young, hip editors discuss a bookstore zoned as an apartment which a man ran secretly, only admitting guests by word of mouth. Late that year, the New York Times ran a story on the New Inquiry, a magazine started by a group of intellectual, underemployed young graduates whose academic interests and refusal to give up their literary dreams in the face of a routine day job, had led them to found a modern literary salon. The group met once a week, in the secret location of a bookstore in Manhattan, which had once been located in a retail building in Brooklyn, but closed once the owner could no longer pay rent. Lindsey had read about this very same place in an article in the Paris Review, and when she proposed we endeavor to find it, I knew this had been in the works for nearly two years, and it was time to see what magic we could work.
We looked up the name of a man in the white pages, whose phone did not pick up, and at whose apartment we knocked and were met by a British woman, who gave us a telephone number and another address, and told us in hushed tones to call later that day, and a man would meet us. We did so, and, yesterday afternoon, found ourselves ringing an unlabeled buzzer in a prewar building, and climbing a narrow staircase to stand in front of a blue painted door.
The owner led us inside, and I was struck by a sensation I have not felt in years. It was beyond wonder, beyond disbelief, beyond awe. In those four narrow rooms, lined floor-to-ceiling by thousands of books, smelling of pipe smoke and whiskey and the dreams of young writers, I had found what can only be described as magic.
I was glued to the sensation of the moment, with no extension beyond its limits, nor any object other than not to be separated from it, I should have died in and with that sensation, I should have let myself be slaughtered without offering any resistance, without a movement, a bee drugged with tobacco smoke that had ceased to take any thought for preserving the accumulation of its labours and the hopes of its hive. (540)
We wandered from shelf to shelf for what felt like hours, talking to the owner (a character and a true bibliophile, who curates every book in his exquisite library), opening first-editions and breathing in their scent, climbing on stools to reach bindings that felt like leather and smelled like possibility. Come back on Thursday night, he told me. I have groups of young writers who come, drink, and discuss literature. You would fit right in. I promised I would, and left in a state of total bliss. I had found the thing for which I had been searching for these past aimless few weeks. I had found once again the reason for which I write, the joy that comes from words, and words alone.
There are moments when I wonder if I could have chosen a more secure or profitable profession, moments when I become frustrated by the life of a writer and consider alternatives, moments, quite simply, when I doubt myself. This was not one of those, and I left Brazen Head books with two well-worn volumes and a newfound resolution. I would not write to get a career, would not write to achieve fame or success or any measure of recognition. I would write, quite simply, because words are the nearest things to magic in this world. And to be able to create them is what lets me feel alive.
So here’s to the coffee shop days, to hidden bookstores and waiting. I cannot promise glamour, in any shape or form, cannot assure you any success or fortune. But I will say, if you stick with me, there will always be words, and the hope that they can get us through the longest of winters.