Mixing Memory with Desire (April is the Cruelest Month)

Dear friends, relatives and faithful readers,

photo (68)I have an announcement to make, after weeks of no blogs, long nights of work, and increasingly sunny spring days that smell blissfully like hyacinth: as of this past Wednesday, I am officially a writer. Not that I haven’t been all along, in some capacity, but I feel rather like Julie Powell when I say that one cannot feel completely and totally like a writer until one is published. And this week I got to see my work in print, published in the newspaper I have started to work for twice a week. And though it was a small story, and I got paid about enough to cook a good dinner and nothing more, there is a wonderful sense of progress, of accomplishment in this small byline, and a sense that all of those long nights have somehow paid off.

That being said, this week was dark in seemingly every other aspect, as news of bombings in Boston and grieving families captured the country’s consciousness. A friend of mine from college lives in Watertown, a sleepy suburban town, and found herself lying on the living room floor on Thursday night, as sounds of gunfire filled her street. These things happen, we all know, somewhere in the back of our minds. But they do not happen to us, to our cities and suburbs, to our families. And the closer this impossibility comes to an improbability, the more afraid we become.

It is impossible in situations like this, whether national or the smaller, quiet sadness of a family tragedy or a sick friend, to reconcile the hurt and fear we feel with the joys of just a few days ago, or the sunshine we know will return. It is difficult, especially this time of the year, to awaken from our stupor of habit, to climb from the cocoon of winter and greet the raw, living world once more, and hold sadness and hope together in our hands.

In “The Wasteland,” which I should be ashamed to admit I have not read in its entirety, T.S. Eliot claims that:

April is the cruellest month,breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

photo 2 (7)And that particular stanza has stuck with me for the past few weeks, as I have started a second job and a new internship, and find myself racing from newspaper office to restaurant to Nick and Sam’s apartment, collapsing in my bed with legs that cramp like a runner’s. Change, I have always thought, is a cruel and painful force; but these changes have brought experience, a sense of fulfillment, more fiscal sustainability. As we near summer and the year anniversary of our graduation (and, right before that, my five year high school reunion!), I have been looking back more and more, assessing what exactly it is that I have done with my life in this past year. And though this progress has been slow, at times excruciatingly so, it has been filled with laughter and love, words and the best friends on Earth. So here I am, stuck, like Eliot, between memory and desire. Here we are waiting for spring to stir our dull roots with spring rain.

Marcel is struggling to make his own strides into societal growth, with forays into the aristocracy of the Guermantes salon and trips to the opera, and this process (like everything in Proust!) is slow as well. He is beginning to understand his love for Albertine, more adult and rooted in reality than his affection for Gilberte, and as we watch him ascend into societal heights and grow into his own artistry, it is impossible not to see some progress in this unending narrative.

Change may still shake me, and the breeze that comes through my open window contain a bit of a winter bite. But, going back once again to Eliot, this time to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” there is time yet.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

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I’m feeling 22 (I don’t know about you)

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.

photo 1 (2)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.

photo 2 (1)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.


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To the Next Fifty Years

A rather eventful week has gone by; we’ve recovered from our (extensive) sunburn, Nick turned twenty-three, I lost my wallet on a bus and have had to start afresh, carrying around my passport as ID and befriending a fabulous bank teller who, while canceling my cards, complimented the good taste of my transaction history (oh my life). We have gone boating in Central Park, antique-hunting in the Brooklyn Flea market, and drank deadly “texas-sized” margaritas from an outdoor café, which were then regretted for days. It has, to say the least, been anything but dull.

Needless to say, my usual crawl through In Search of Lost Time has slowed to a near-halt, and I have temporarily abandoned poor neurotic Marcel in a sea of dinner parties and socialite drama which he does not yet entirely understand. I promise, as always, to return, but with this week being an abbreviated version of my typical workweek, ending in my going down to Baltimore on Thursday to take my brother Harry down to college, I figured I may as well abandon all pretense, and post on something that both has everything to do with my own life, and fits in perfectly with my experience of the novel thus far.

Last night we cooked dinner for Nick’s birthday, and as we sat around the best meal I have had since graduating, discussed the implications and relative terror of entering our mid-twenties. Though this may seem a trite concern for someone even a few years older or younger than us, the shift from twenty-two, just finishing college and still close enough to your teens to identify as a young adult, and twenty-three, fully in the real world, with all of the weights and expectations of adulthood suddenly heaped upon you, can seem rather momentous. We all assured him he was entering his “late-early twenties,” laughed and cut the cake. But the prospect of growing older lingered with me, as most things unfortunately tend to do, and I thought back to my own childhood, when my mother would have to hold me as I cried, the night before my birthday, every single year, at the prospect of growing older.

And now you see how we have come, inevitably, back to Marcel. So much of what Proust does for four thousand pages is try to find a way to fight time, to slow its endless crawl, to use art and words and music to combat the deterioration and blurring of memories and experiences that accompanies the shift from one century to the next. Some would say that he succeeds, and, though I am far from reaching the end of these musings, there is something to be said for the novel’s longevity, its sustained existence, beyond the death of its author. I have long viewed writing as a way to preserve moments, to hold suspended and apart those memories with which I cannot bear to be parted, and perhaps, in a way, art does help us hold a place in time, stand still as the age progresses around us.

But I would argue that, even more than art, it is in each other that we find some sliver of eternity. I have had the great fortune, all through my life but especially in the past few years, of being surrounded by the most remarkable, clever, hysterical, loyal people I have ever known. And I find in my friends, more often than not, the ability to take a moment or period in my life, color it with laughter and absurdity, fill it with great food and music drifting into the summer night, and fix that point in time in a way that cannot be shaken.  If we singly cannot fight time, I would argue, if art and words and memories fail, it is in the people with whom we surround ourselves that forever lies. And if we hold fast to those we love, age is merely another adventure.

So here is to my very best friend, on the occasion of turning twenty-three. Happy Birthday. I know without a shadow of a doubt that your life will be splendid beyond imagining. As Olivia says and Sam loves to quote, we are on a roller coaster that only goes up. And we will all be on that ride, together, from here on out. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Last Wednesday, when Sam and I were shopping for Nick’s birthday in Chelsea, we went into a pop-up shop called “Story,” that reinvents itself every few months with a new theme. It was thoroughly too hip for us, and we wandered aimlessly from gourmet, locally sourced dog food to plates engraved with the Manhattan grid. They were hosting some sort of evening event, and giving out free glasses of wine, which we naturally took, giggling to ourselves at the oddity of the situation. “Look at us,” I mused, “drinking as we shop on a Wednesday night. What are the things I drag you to?” Sam laughed. “Aren’t you so glad I take you to things like this, that you boys see me every night?”

“Why, are you getting sick of us yet?” he gave me a sidelong look, half-amused and half-curious.

“Are you kidding me?” I laughed. “We could go the next fifty years, seeing each other every single day, and I would never get sick of it.”

Sam smiled.

“Okay then,” he said, solemnly raising his glass, and looking me straight in the eye, “here’s to the next fifty years.”

The Names, and Summer Bliss

There is a certain magic in names. They can conjure up a place, Aruba or Oklahoma, that contains in its very syllabic construction the spirit or essence of its locale. They can represent a person, quirky or bland, transform an egg into a soufflé or an evening into a soirée. Naming an object or event, transforming one word into another, imparts a certain significance onto it, gives it power, substance, force.

Before I was born, my parents discussed several names I could have been given, a significant ritual in the development of a new family and the beginning of the relationship a person has with his or her title. My potentials were Nicholas or Harry, if I had been a boy, or Augusta, were I to be a girl. When my mother lay in the delivery room, however, holding her purple and (I have been told) screaming child, she looked down at my new, ruddy face, and said to my father a word he had never heard before, a pronouncement they had not discussed at all.

“I think we should name her Maeve.” She said, and there I was.

My mother had lived in Ireland for a year in college, and knew Queen Maeve was a mythical warrior who led her troops to battle and is buried standing upright on a mountain in Connaught that bears her name. She wanted to raise a daughter with a strong name, and my father agreed. My grandmother, very excited at the birth of her first granddaughter but rather hard of hearing, thought my name was Nave, and called everyone in the family with that pronouncement. It took weeks to fully clear up.

Having a more unusual name than almost anyone I know, I went through childhood alternating between loving and hating it. For almost a year, I insisted my mother call me “Lillian,” the name of my adopted grandmother and my very favorite alternative to my own. By the time I reached middle school, I had looked up my namesake and discovered her rather promiscuous past (it seems that, in addition to being a strong leader, she slept with half her army). Maeve in Irish means “she who intoxicates,” and, though I have never identified with its more risqué implications, and occasionally give my mother’s name for ease of spelling when I go to restaurants or cafés, I could not imagine being called anything else.

For Marcel, names carry a similar power, calling forth the allure of foreign places or the intimacy of a potential lover with the utterance of a few sounds. He recalls,

I need only, to make them reappear, pronounce the names Balbec, Venice, Florence, within whose syllables had gradually accumulated the longing inspired in me by the places for which they stood.

His childhood love for Gilberte (something I foresee developing in the coming chapters) is mostly based upon the utterances of her name, her father’s (for, as we learn, she is Charles Swann’s daughter), and, in a moment of masterful divulgence, that of her mother Odette. As it turns out, she and Swann do get married, despite what appears to be the unravelling of their relationship, founded on jealousy and affairs. Marcel, it appears, has a few tricks up his frilly sleeves.

Names came back to grace my morning as I awoke at dawn to head up to the beach with friends. Nick, Sam, Laura and I got up at 630 and boarded a MetroNorth train from Grand Central station (itself one of my favorite places in the city, vaulted and majestic with gilded clocks and tracks that still bear the stone numbering of another century). We rode up through Connecticut, discussing the relative wealth of the towns we passed (the entire state is a contrast of extremes), and how thoroughly and repetitively they had been named. For every West Haven there was an East Haven, for every Morningside an Eveningside, and we spent a good deal of the train ride devising new nomenclature for the towns we passed, abbreviating South Norwalk to “So No” and the imaginary “No No,” and asking Laura if there was an “Afternoonside” to go with its morning and evening equivalents.

We got to Fairfield and lay on a nearby beach, alternating between splashing in the Long Island Sound (or in Sam’s case, wading), and stretching out on the sand as we slowly turned into human lobsters. Names, I will hold, carry an unmistakable power. But so do days of summer, washed in sun and friendship, windswept and salt-kissed, and tinged forever with that sense of fleeting solar eternity. As Marcel confessed to me today,

Often in one we find a day that has strayed from another, that makes us live in that other, evokes and makes us long for its particular pleasures, and interrupts the dreams that we were in the process of weaving, by inserting out of its turn, too early or too late, this leaf torn from another chapter in the interpolated calendar of Happiness.

And for these moments, I cannot pick a name.

Oh, and did I mention that, halfway to becoming a lobster on the Fairfield beach, I finished Swann’s Way? One down, five to go! Marcel, I will master you yet.