Backwards with Time

I am sitting aboard Amtrak train 132 en route to New York. I have snagged two seats to myself, and spread all five pieces of my luggage over the row in order to discourage businessmen from sitting next to me. Open in front of me are drafts of a grant I am trying to rewrite, notes in a moleskin in my almost illegible handwriting, a gluten-free chicken salad sandwich, wrapped in foil. The train rocks as I try to reach for the words to bring afterschool literacy alive, or at least inject enough soul into a two-page narrative to warrant $60,000. Sitting on trains always reminds me of other countries, traveling down through the south of Spain or taking the TGV to the Alps in France with Kylie. Lately, I feel haunted by memories.photo 2

We are going to skip the usual apologies for not writing in a while and get right down to life itself, which I hope is all right, since if you are reading this you have hopefully forgiven me my absence. The past two months have been riddled with joy and sadness, a little more of both than usual, as I’ve started a new chapter of my life as a Grant Writer with a capital G (some days I feel my dreams are written in letters of inquiry!), among many other changes. And the truth is, I really have not had it in me to write for myself, to listen to music that was not Radiolab, to throw a large dinner party. Sometimes, in the face of tremendous change, we tend to recede into ourselves, take what is needed for survival, and not let anything else pass. But eventually, I wound up back here. There isn’t much, even the most difficult of changes, that can keep me from writing for very long. So here I am, steaming past the fall foliage on the banks of the Susquahana, trying to find words to say what life itself cannot.

I should clarify and say that my new job is absolutely wonderful, that I love my sassy and fabulous co-workers, and that I get up every day with a smile and board the F train uptown with a cup of Earl Grey tea. I have not quite figured out whether or not I am good at my job, but I think the majority of that may be starting-out jitters, and the secret conviction that I will not be able to master a field in which I have no prior experience. We are located in a residential apartment building on the Upper West side, right across the street from where the Michael J. Fox show is frequently filmed (sometimes I sneak across, and, trying to blend in with the film crew, make myself a cup of iced coffee!). Except for the directors, we are all in our early to mid-twenties, and laugh through the too-often chaotic atmosphere that pervades our tiny workspace. In all of my months of freelancing, I never imagined a paycheck and a daily schedule could feel as good as it does, so I suppose I owe Sam an apology (as well as a nice dinner!) for forcing me to consider it.

20130918_190938So instead of spending my days in cafes, trolling NYFA and Idealist for job prospects, I sit and write narratives and try to brainstorm ways to fund education programs, acquainting myself with different foundations and methods of finding support. My nights, no longer an exercise in physical endurance, spent running up and down restaurant stairs in near-darkness, while the throb of an electronic set beat through my head until hours after sleep, are now spent cooking and seeing friends. Though there are still nights when I wake up at three in the morning to compulsively eat chocolate pumpkins in my sleep, I am no longer stressed about finding a job or where I will be in the next three months, and that is a great relief.

Sundays are still spent at my beloved pancake restaurant, manning the door, smiling and entering numbers into my iPad as mobs of angry brunchers demand the reason behind our three-hour wait. Though I tell people I stick around for the tips, I think there is a deeper reason why I give up one of my two days off to work ten hours behind a hostess stand, a certain pride I take in a job that I know I can do well and with a certain degree of grace. And of course, there is the conviction that I am amassing a body of stories so good that by the time I leave, my first book will basically have written itself (if our owner does not sue me immediately upon its publication!).

But there are of course parts of my new life that cannot be neatly summed up into requisite packets of description, moments and feelings that do not make it into my daily routine. Like the night I went up to Washington Heights to have an Irish supper with Natasha, and we walked down to the edge of the Hudson, where octagonal apartment buildings overlooked the wine-dark expanse of the river. The silent shoreline of New Jersey lay on one side, the West Side Highway on the other. The George Washington bridge sparkled across the expanse, and I could close my eyes and imagine I was anywhere else on earth. There was the weekend Amanda and I went to see the Avett Brothers perform in Philadelphia. We sat under the vast, wooden ceiling of the Mann Center, and listened to Scott and Seth sing “are we growing backwards with time?” on the acoustic harmonica, and sobbed as Amanda held my hand. There was an afternoon when Liz and I walked down to City Hall and sat in the vast tiled courtyard until the sun went down behind the buildings, talking about everything and nothing. There were the rainbow array of exotic peppers at Fairway, the smell of onions roasting in my kitchen, the warmth of my sister’s head against my neck when we snuggled in her bed this morning. Even in the midst of great tumult, I suppose I have learned, there are clear and crystalline moments of beauty, of joy.

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Writing is one of those media, then, that I suppose must always tell the truth. You can smile to the world, go about your daily life, even hide how you feel from yourself, but your written word, in its purest form, cannever lie. The ability of art to act as an expressive means of communication extends beyond its purpose, beyond its intended scope. Once we sit down and put pen to paper, we lose a degree of control, some measure of our own ability to control the narrative. I have waited so long to write because I have, in many ways, been rather lost. But that is not an excuse, and if I am going to make art, I suppose I may as well make it honest. There are times (especially in our early twenties) which we which we could erase from the record, act chipper, start anew. But in the end, these only make for a fuller story.

I promise to make my next post a little more concrete (maybe even inject some Proust for once!), to tell you some of my restaurant stories, wax poetical about grants (if such a thing can be done!), share a recipe for whole roasted cauliflower. But for the moment, I am going to go back to staring out the window, writing about arts-based literacy, and looking forward to being home again.

Book Three, and Time to Mess Up the Pattern

First things first: I have finally finished Within a Budding Grove, and, leaving a lovestruck Marcel pining after Albertine in a cold Balbec hotel room, moved on to The Guermantes Way. We are still terribly behind, but this, my dear readers, is what you call progress (though I must say that Nora, who just got a full-time job and is being awesome and kick-ass round-the-clock, deserves a little more applause than does my reading of seventy pages!). We carry on, Marcel. Just you watch us.

This spring has been the coldest I can remember, including the four winters I spent in upstate New York. After a relatively mild winter, March came bearing down like the lion my mother always claimed it was, and we have had snow every few days for the last several weeks. The days are longer now, and I sometimes get out of bed at seven and pull up my blinds to the most dazzling shade of blue. It is sometimes so sunny that I forget it is still thirty-five degrees, and go outside to a bitter cold reminder.

DSC04497Today I decided to wear a dress. For the first time since October, I wanted to feel unconstrained by corduroys and zippers, and layered
thick tights and a thermal shirt under a blue cotton dress I inherited from Elizabeth, as I boarded the F train to Brooklyn. Nick and Sam and I went to see the El Anatsui retrospective, a show about a contemporary Ghanaian artist who makes shimmering, fluid, mosaic-like walls of rippling metal out of African liquor caps. After a stunning show at the Venice Biannale six years ago, he has been gaining popularity, and I went to write about the exhibit for Hyperallergic, an online magazine based in Brooklyn. We wandered from room to room and then out through Park Slope and across Prospect Park, where the trees were thinking about budding.

Five years ago, I wrote a letter to myself upon the occasion of my high school graduation. We were promised that these would be mailed to us the spring of our first year out of college—our five-year reunion. I have been thinking a lot about that letter lately, mostly pondering what could possibly be inside, as I have absolutely no memory of what I wrote. What could eighteen-year-old Maeve have to say? Did she wish me luck in college, tell me to be brave and take risks, urge me not to forget those wonderful and terrible years when she felt so lost and so loved? And what, more importantly (and more frightening),
would she think of me now, living in Manhattan (a city I never pondered moving to until the summer I lived here and fell in love on the second day), working as a hostess, applying to almost a hundred jobs from coffee-shop tables and library desks? Would she be shocked, that Maeve who had never been kissed, whose parents were married, who drove through the summer nights with her three best friends, blasting Brand New and soaking up the hot summer air and wondering what alcohol felt like when it touched your throat? Would she think I have grown up, become jaded, succeeded or failed?

522720_4598879213153_1931367867_nThis week I learned that I did not get what I thought might be my dream job, an intensive internship at a major newspaper, and for a good two hours, I stared at my computer screen and wondered how to do this thing that seems to want to evade me. I wondered, for the very first time in my life, if I am meant to be a writer, when no one but me seems to want to hire me to do so. And then I started to think about eighteen-year-old Maeve, who may have been naive and a little quixotic, but who had no doubt how hard this would be. And I thought of something Nick had said to me that morning, as I stressed about hearing from HR. “If anyone can do this, you can.”

So I got out my computer, and began to write. I googled small newspapers and New York Times articles. I went through the entire masthead of the Brooklyn Paper and wrote to every editor. I wrote to Frank Bruni, my favorite Times columnist, and asked him for advice. The next morning, he wrote me back, wishing me luck. I put on my purple button-down and went to the public library and printed out my clips and went into the offices of the Brooklyn Paper and told them I wanted to learn. I called different editorial departments and finally spoke to a man at a series of small neighborhood newspapers in downtown Manhattan. And as of Monday, April 1st, I will be interning there, fact-checking and copy-editing and doing all of the little gritty things that I need to learn. And, best news yet: they cannot pay me much (I will, in fact, have to get another part-time job), but they are going to let me write. I called my mom, and she told me I should do it.

580684_4598882573237_105522053_nI don’t know if it’s spring finally coming and the sunshine, or that red-headed stubbornness that I always seem to forget until I really
need it, or having the most wonderful people on Earth around me to support me in what is sometimes an impossible time, but I feel as
if things are changing. And as someone who does not do well at all with change, this is a remarkably wonderful thing. Liz texted me on Tuesday,  when I told her my new plan, “as a wise teacher once said, sometimes in order to wake up, you have to mess up the pattern.” So this is my attempt. It is not ideal; it will hardly be glamorous. But the thought of going in to a real newspaper office twice a week makes me smile. It will be a new experience, and I am very ready for that.

So there you have it, eighteen-year-old Maeve. Your life is still very much a work in progress. You have by no means figured it out, but
you are having a blast along the way. Some of your very best friends, you don’t even know yet. Some of your favorite places you haven’t even seen. But get excited, and be proud of what you will do, and don’t stop even when it gets really hard.

Oh, and one more thing. One day you are going to try to read a really really long book, and then regret it for a while and then plunge back in and then hate it again. But don’t give up.

 

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