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.
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.
So 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.
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.