There’s hardly any getting around it, and those of you who have been following us from the very beginning will have already realized: it has been a year since this blog began, and we have failed to achieve our goal. Since June 4, 2012, Nora and I have not read all six volumes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In fact, we have barely completed two. At this rate, it will take us at least three years to do what we were confident we could do in one. Julie Powell we are not. And frankly, that is something that does not really bother me. Though this year marker forces us to take a moment and reflect upon our project, and the progressing state of our lives, it is less a milestone of failure than a sign of the ways in which we have changed. We have not made it yet. But neither are we giving up.
Life, in all of its wonderful and heartbreaking chaos, has quite simply gotten in the way. Nora has been through two internships, one of which turned into a job, and spent most of her afternoons and nights working for a company she loves, in a career she finds fulfilling. The fact that this meant that most of her days from three to midnight were spent working the night shift at her job only indicated how passionate she felt about the work she was doing, and she remains for me one of the most professionally successful people our age I know.
I have progressed from an unpaid internship to a slew of nearly a hundred job applications, to working two restaurant jobs while writing freelance and interning at a community newspaper. It is hardly the tracked career I hoped I would have when I moved to New York, nor is it especially conducive to having a predictable schedule or a normal social life. I am in a constant state of stress, and rarely have more than $30 to my name. And yet I am happier than I have been in a very long time.
Life, I have found, moves a lot more slowly than we would like it to at times, and far too quickly at others. Nora and I originally thought that reading 80 pages a week would be easy compared to our college workload. And if Proust had turned out to be a little less like quicksand, perhaps we would have succeeded. But instead, we plunged into a literary labyrinth and entered the real world, filled with rent and subway commutes and long starlit nights drinking whiskey lemonade and laughing with the people we love.
And let’s just admit it: this blog was never really about Proust anyway. It may have begun that way—that may have been the impetus for our collaboration, some late-night inspiration wrought by days of sleep-deprivation and too many soy lattes in our Hamilton student-run café. It may have begun as an attempt to keep in touch with some intellectual pursuit we feared we might forget. But it became so much more.
This week, I got up early and, as is my habit, lay in bed until the hour when most people are awake, checking my emails, writing, and watching Netflix. I got a newsletter from my high school and skimmed through it, skimming the requests for money and the class notes and pausing at the section on graduation, which took place this past week. Alongside pictures of the Class of 2013, wearing the floor-length white dresses I graduated in five years ago, were excerpts from the commencement address, which was given by my tenth-grade English teacher, Mary Shoemaker. Mrs. Shoemaker was quirky and full of life, and I remember her love of Keats and quiet encouragement being one of the things that drove me to study literature in college. I clicked on the link to a video of her speech, and was almost immediately brought to tears.
“Gold pales in comparison to the rewards we reap” she told the Class of 2013, reflecting upon her more than thirty years of experience (she is retiring this summer). She told the story of a strange, brilliant girl whom she had helped lead through the trials of middle school and watched blossom into a poet, admired by her peers and celebrated by the school. This was, in an anecdote, the reward of teaching, Mrs. Shoemaker concluded, and then finished by advising the class, in the simplest terms, to pursue their passions, a word which, she admitted, is far too often used in our society.
To me, in its truest sense, passion is the thing without which your soul shrivels, the thing you must do, no matter what the cost. So if there is one message to my ramblings today, it is this: while you’re still free to do so, before mortgages and bills and babies crowd your landscape, take a run on that not-so-sensible or lucrative path that’s always beckoned. Be a waitress in New York while you try for your big break on Broadway. Starve in a garret while you wait for that publisher to call saying she loves your poetry.
(This is where, finding the speech too close to home, I really started to reach for my tissues!)
In the end, you will not find happiness in what you own, but in who you are. I do not own a Porche, or a Chalet in Switzerland, or six closets full of clothes. But I join in retirement the man I have loved since I was not much older than the girls on this stage. We have three kind and smart and funny children and a glorious daughter-in-law who love us and love one another. And every day—every day—I have loved what I have done, being caught up in the world of thought that is education. I have loved what I’ve taught. I have loved the girls I have taught, and I have loved the people with whom I have taught. Those are riches, girls. Those are riches.
She finished to a standing ovation, smiled, and left the stage. I wiped my eyes, watched it again, and sent it to my college friends. Graduation speeches are so rarely memorable (the one at my college Commencement was truly terrible, so perhaps it will live on a little longer than the dull ones!), and hers was so very poignant and unassuming, that I have spent most of the past week thinking back on it.
In the last year, I have not finished Proust. I have not gotten a full-time job, nor have I fallen in love, bought a car, or completed any of the other life milestones by which we mark success. But I have kept reading, writing, and laughing. I have found this blog a wonderful outlet for a creative type of reflection which I cannot express anywhere else. And I have become closer to Nora, whom I consider a very dear friend, and without whom I would have a hard time imagining my life here.
And every day when I board the bus to the newspaper, every night when I return home from work at midnight, my feet sore and my stomach far too full of strawberry-rhubarb lemonade and sugar bacon, every time I sit on the floor of my shower, hugging my knees and wondering when life is finally going to sort itself out, I remember that I am a writer. I am being paid, however little, to do what I love, for the first time in my life, and any professional success I may have had as a banker or lawyer pales in comparison. I may not have a West Village townhouse, or even, for that matter, a salary. But instead I have a worn down, light-filled apartment inhabited by bugs and dust and dreams. I have a computer with a cracked screen, 97 job applications, and a host of stories I now write for a newspaper that puts my name in print. Though I have yet to find romance, I have a family that loves me and friends who make me laugh and hug me when I cry, and once came ten miles in the rain just to make sure I was okay. And I have words, so very many words, tumbling over each other and clogging my thoughts and only sometimes emerging in a comprehensive whole. But when they fit together, it is as magical as anything that exists on this earth.
And those, I promise you, are riches enough.