Learning to Fail (Love Your Art, Poor as it May Be)

photo 1 (13)Sometimes I feel that if any real literature major sits me down for a cup of coffee, he or she will quickly discover that I am somewhat of a fraud. I have not read Moby Dick or Great Expectations (though I once wrote a paper about the latter after finding it unreadable in a college class and skimming!), nor can I whip through a novel in an afternoon, like Nick, who has read 3500 pages in the past month, nor am I always up to date on the latest New Yorker essay or school of literary criticism. And in a way, this does not trouble me. While at Hamilton, I drank in every bit of theory I could find, but my essays were always analyses of character, relating form and content back to the human essence of each story, again and again. One of my favorite books ever written is Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, a story of the building of Toronto, told through the voices of several emigrants. Somewhere in this beautiful, historic narrative is a line that has stuck with me in the six years since I first read it, with special resonance in the past year: “The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.’ Meander if you want to get to town.”

Try as I might to spin my post-collegiate life into a story of self-discovery, replete with the broke glamor of a writer working in a restaurant, applying for jobs in cafes, and drinking whiskey lemonade on fire escapes, I must admit that I have spent much of the past year meandering. I have tried, in over one hundred and three applications, to get various full time jobs, to learn how to budget my weekly groceries, to keep an urban apartment clean and learn to bike across the Manhattan bridge. A great deal of what I have done in this past year has been the slow, tough act of growing up, learning to stand on my own, and, bleak as it may initially sound, learning to fail.

Say what you will about all-girls schools and small liberal arts colleges—I may have grown overly fond of wooded clearings and become slightly stunted in regards to the opposite sex, but for seventeen years of my life, I learned. I learned how to construct a five-paragraph essay and then disregard that entire format. I learned the difference between Neo-Classic and Romantic paintings, the fact that Charlemagne was born on Christmas day in the year 800, how to properly dig an archaeological trench. In the process, I learned to make friends, do the monkey bars and live in my own dorm room, and as elementary school progressed into academia, I grew up, sometimes painfully and with reluctance, sometimes in great leaps and bounds. I may not have gone to Eaton or Harvard, but I owe my education, and my parents for giving it to me, a great deal.

photo 2 (12)In seventeen years of education, however, I never learned to fail as I have in this past year. With a few exceptions, everything we did in school seemed to push us closer to graduation, fill our brains with knowledge, teach us how to make and keep friendships. There was always a sense of forward momentum, and much of our lives in the first years after college are spent trying to regain that sense of control, that seasonal rhythm, the feeling that we were moving steadily in one direction. There was a point in the past year where I declared to my closest friends that I felt as if I was drowning. What I wish I had known to say at the time was that I really felt as if I was treading water, standing in place while I waited for progress to take hold. Jobs and relationships do not come as readily as graduation day, and, as my friend Liz so wisely pointed out recently, real life moves a lot more slowly than we expect it to. This has been, without a doubt, one of the most difficult years of my life. But it has also been one of the most important, and the most wonderful.

This blog started as a way to keep in touch with our academic selves, to grasp and retain those intellectual and literary aspects that the nine-to-five grind was sure to take away from us. It started as a way to connect to one another and to the world of books, but what it has become is a far less erudite, far less directed way for Nora and me to give voice to our experiences, to speak to our beloved readers and each other, to meander on our way to town. It is also the way in which I have come to tell the world when something momentous or wonderful happens, which is part of my aim this week. But before doing so, let me finish my current train of thought.

I began this post two weeks ago, right after having been rejected from a newspaper that I felt was my dream employer. I began it intending to give a resigned but hopeful update on my still-stagnant career path, to urge myself and all of you to hold tight to the things you care about, to love your art, poor as it may be (a line, I must admit, I stole from Alan Alda, who took it from a Roman emperor). One day, I will be a writer, for a newspaper or a magazine, or perhaps an editor of books or journals who spends her spare hours composing narrative essays. I will get there, no matter how many years it takes, what I do during the day, whether or not I have to go to graduate school. Learning to fail has only strengthened my resolve, my determination to go on doing what I love, whether or not it is the profession on my business card.

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I made myself this promise, wrote most of this post, and then I went off on vacation to Cape Cod with my family,where, one day on the sand dunes of a beach in West Yarmouth, remarkably and without the stress and drama which every other interview seemed to entail, I got a phone call offering me a job. I am going to start work on Tuesday, as a grant-writer for an arts-education non-profit, a profession that would never have occurred to me even a month ago, but which, after a great deal of thought and advice from those I love, has become something very promising and exciting. Rather than write about art all day long, which is how I initially thought I would spend the next year, I will be organizing and composing persuasive proposals to bring non-traditional , arts-based teaching into the New York Public School system. I have never written a real grant in my life, so hopefully it will be something I can learn to do well! I am, to what was initially my own surprise, nothing short of thrilled. But I thought rather than title and begin this post with I GOT A JOB!!!!!!, which is how I was tempted to do it, I would give credence to my initial post, and try to work in my thoughts on failure with my more recent success, to tie together the good and the bad and thus try to illustrate the turbulence of the last year.

This is all to say, in a rather roundabout, verbose way (but lets be honest, what else have you come to expect from me?), that sometimes the road is winding and full of failure and and deeply wonderful. Sometimes we must resign ourselves to remain happy-free-confused-and-lonely-at-the-same-time, until life works itself out around us. I strive too hard for control, something which I am trying to teach myself to relinquish. Instead, I am deeply and inexpressibly grateful—to Sam for helping me to get this job, to my mother for listening to me moan and helping me to stand, to my dad for always believing I could get there, to Amanda for arepas and nail dates and being patient enough to live in a tiny square room with me for an entire year, to Nora for being my blog buddy, to Nick for too many things to list, and to countless others, including all of you.

So with this in mind, and new paths on the horizon, there isn’t much left to do now but keep meandering, this time with a little more direction, to hold tight to words and one another, and to allow ourselves that moment, at the end of a day when something has finally gone right, to feel an unbridled and unsought rush of pure joy.

Thank you all, as always, for sticking with us.

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Caramels in Midwinter

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.

photo (63)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.

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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.

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We Wish You A Merry Christmas!

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When I was growing up, my parents would always start off Christmas morning the same way. Harry,  Fiona, and I would come into their room, jump on their bed at around seven am (we were expressly forbidden from waking them sooner), and insist we go downstairs and open presents. We would then wait at the top of the stairs while my Mom made coffee and Dad went into the living room and exclaimed in loud and enthusiastic tones at the presents that Santa had brought overnight. “Oh my God, LOOK!! This is INSANE. Rose, will you come in here?? LOOK AT THIS. We’re going to have to send some of this back. You guys don’t deserve this many presents,” and so on, taking what felt like a painfully long period to make the two cups of coffee, then, finally, take out the camera and allow us to proceed down the steps in age-order (meaning that I always went last), and photographed us as we entered the living room. When we were older and got our dog, Harry used to make plans to strap a video camera to Cocoa’s collar and let him go down and spy on the Christmas tree for us. This giddiness hardly wore off as we grew older, and my Dad continued to exclaim about Santa even after none of us believed him. But throughout the entire morning, we would listen to the soundtrack of Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular, whose songs are now imprinted in my head as I go about the holiday season. One in particular made its mark.

“It’s Christmas in New York,” the Rockettes would sing, as I opened presents and handed mine to my parents in exchange. “New York. New York.” I imagined the tree at Rockafeller Center, the store windows at Sacks, the cold city streets filled with lights. And finally, after twenty three years, I know what made that song worth singing, and know that the reality is even more magical.

photo (33)There is truly nothing quite like the Christmas season in this city. Even as a barely paid intern who can mostly marvel at the shop windows rather than entering, I find myself swept up in the festivity of the season, in a way I never felt in college or even beforehand. I spent last weekend making gluten-free Christmas cookies with Nick and Sam, going to the Nutcracker (tickets to which the boys gave me as a birthday present, and which was stunning), hopping from one Christmas market to the next, and decorating my and Ross’s tree, which is tiny and stout and wonderful, and sits beside our IKEA couches in the living room. I have been to several holiday parties, marveled at the lit trees up and down Park ave, and made yet another batch of boeuf bourgignon for a last-minute pre-holiday gathering of friends tonight. It is, suffice to say, in many ways the most wonderful time of the year.

In other ways, however, we have all found ourselves going through the last week with heavy hearts, as news from the school shootings pervades every news source, and the financial and familial stress the holidays can bring weighs down on us even as we celebrate them. One of the realizations of growing up, I have found, is that there is never a time which does not have some tinge of bittersweet emotion.  I listen to Christmas carols and smile as I wrap presents on my bedroom floor, and then turn on my computer, read the Times homepage, and am in tears. I decorate our beautiful little tree, and pass people on Houston street who do not have beds to sleep in.  In times when we are encouraged to feel the most joy, there is a heightened sense that this is the only emotion we are allowed to feel. And Christmas carries with it this pressure almost more than any other time.photo (36)

So here is my advice to my fellow Prousters, family, and friends: let the holidays be whatever they are for you. Tell the people you love that you love them, as often and as eloquently as you can. Do not feel the need to buy too many presents, or feel like everyting has to be perfect, or exactly the way it was when you were a child. Proust has taught me, along with time itself, that nothing ever remains the same, and that our ability to grow and adapt to this change is what makes us stronger. I am having two Christmases this year, the way I see it. One will be with my best friends, before I go home, and the other with my family in Baltimore. On Saturday I will go home to my family for a week, and will come back to a different routine than the one I am leaving, will have to find a new job, or else piece a few together. I will have to say goodbye to my desk adn office kitties, and leap out into a future which is, at this point, largly unknown. But this is not as frightening as it once was, because I know that no matter what happens, we will carry on. I will keep writing, carols will keep playing, the most wonderful friends on earth will still be there for me. Christmas still has its magic, even if I now find it under a very different tree.

So Nora and I would like to wish you a very Merry Christmas, or Hanukkah (though I know that has now passed), or Kwanzaa, or Winter Solstice, or whatever you celebrate. You, our friends, family, and readers, are the best gifts we could ever ask for. So light your candles, gather together, drink mulled wine and eat cookies. And have the happiest of New Years.

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