Those Are Riches, Girls

photoThere’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.

IMG_5870Life, 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.

photoThis 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.

IMG_5886She 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.

IMG_5826And 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.

How to Have a Bad Weekend

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I just had one of those weekends. One of those weekends that started on a high, swan-dived into wretchedness, and ended on confusing.

You may have heard, if you live in New York or check Instagram, that it was snowing on Friday. I was walking toward the train after a spinning class as the snow started to fall down, and I was sweaty but hopped up on endorphins and taken with how beautiful the city looked dusted with snow. I bought some groceries on my way home and didn’t feel guilty about eating brie.

I went out for dinner and drinks with my best friend and her boyfriend, and the boyfriend generously bought all of our dinners, and as we tramped back through the snow towards our homes we got into a spontaneous snowball fight. It’s fair to say I lost the snowball fight, but as I walked home, full of guacamole and margaritas that someone else had bought me, I thought about how much I love my best friend, how happy I was that she and her boyfriend are so in love with each other, how lucky I am to have a home in this city, how when both of us move from our parents apartments in SoHo to our own apartments in Brooklyn we’ll still be neighbors and we’ll find a new local Mexican place that serves relatively cheap food and strong margaritas.

Fast-forward 24 hours. I am standing on a street corner on the Lower East Side, convulsing with sobs and very cold because the bar of which I have just been unceremoniously thrown out is holding my coat hostage. In retrospect, of course, the crying was obviously unnecessary and melodramatic. Though I will say that the coat thing was not my fault. The tears were a direct result of being told that no, I could not have my coat back because no, that wasn’t my ticket, get out of line. Nor do I think you–yes, you, bouncers–should tell a patron to leave your bar just because she is crying, albeit loudly. Everyone has bad days (right?).

We have all been that girl. You have felt misunderstood and mistreated and probably wanted to cry about it. Which is what I did.

I think one of the things I connect to most in Proust is the flexibility and equal weight given to the range of emotions a single person can experience. He gives us pages upon pages of one emotion, and he makes it a unique emotion, one that has never been felt before and will never be felt again. And then, even though pages have elapsed, only a moment of “time” has actually passed, but in that moment enough has changed to give rise to a completely new emotion. And frequently that emotion is one that calls attention to one of our uglier “defects:”

In the human race, the frequency of the virtues that are identical in us all is not more wonderful than the multiplicity of the defects that are peculiar to each one of us.

What makes a good night go bad? Surely it can’t just be when a woman working the coat check refuses to give us back our coat on a brisk winter night. To really inspire waterworks, there has to be something else going on beneath the surface. I’m sure it was a confluence of “things,” but I feel like I’m not doing Proust nor this blog, any favors, by not giving equal weight to all my emotions. He would not, in his blog, write only about the moments that made him happy, the moments that gave him hope. He would not write a sanitized blog that precluded the mention of the fact that he was drunk on a Saturday night because someone he was related to or a potential employer might read it. And while I’m not aspiring to write the blog a 21st century Proust himself would write, I am trying to give an honest portrayal of what it means to be a 21st century 22-year-old reading Proust and resonating with what Proust has to say.

“The weekend” is a kind of Platonic ideal of a passage of time, a refuge to which we look forward, something we romanticize and fetishize the way Proust does the country girls he meets on vacation in Balbec. But sometimes our weekends do manage to live up to what we hope they will be. Sometimes those two days off from work are exactly what we need them to be. Sometimes they’re more.

And sometimes they’re far less. Sometimes they make you yearn for the banality of your work week. Sometimes you are at the place in your life and your search for stability that a middle aged woman telling you to get out of her face and the thought of a walk home without a coat is enough to make you sob. And even when you’re crying, and you know you shouldn’t be, you feel like you might as well give into the enormity of the weeping. Because even if you shouldn’t be crying, you are, and it feels better than it felt before you were crying and better than you will feel after you’re done.

Image via HBO Girls

The Coffee Shop Days

“When we talk about this period of our lives in the future,” I told Nora the other day via gchat, “we will call these my ‘coffee shop days.'” She laughed (virtually), and I listed the different establishments in which I had spent the past week: Atlas Cafe on the Lower East Side, McNally Jackson in SoHo, OST Cafe on Avenue B and 12th street, and so on. Each had a distinct personality, a different sort of clientele, a different music selection. In each, I made myself at home, ordered some sort of tea or hot chocolate (I have learned by now that coffee and I do not mix well), opened my laptop, and settled into the same familiar search. It is time to find a real job.
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My internship ended right before Christmas, and I have spent the weeks since returning to New York searching for a full-time job. So far, I have gotten a part-time position hostessing at a hip Asian restaurant in Chelsea, which begins next week. But until I get a job with an office and a desk, Atlas Cafe on Clinton Street has become my post-grad equivalent of Cafe Opus on Hamilton’s campus (where I could be found pretty much every minute I was not asleep, eating, or on Kylie’s couch). I get up before nine each day, shower, eat a granola bar, and head down the block to my makeshift office, where I sit and apply for jobs until it is time for lunch, when I usually come home and cook before returning to the effort. So far, it has been two weeks, almost thirty applications, and countless cups of tea. I can only hope, in the end, that all of these numbers will somehow add up to one job.

Until that time, I have rung in the New Year with the most wonderful friends, a few New York adventures, and a slew of visits to wonderful bookstores. Nora and I had brunch last Saturday in TriBeCa, and then walked around SoHo, stopping at Housing Works (a café, bookstore, and thrift store with locations throughout the city whose mission is to counteract the dual problems of homelessness and AIDS), to drop off clothing Nora was donating. We wandered between the shelves of this temple of literary second-chances, pulling out art books and anthologies, books on sexuality and zen gardens. We scoured the fiction shelves for Proust, but Marcel was nowhere to be found. I returned two days later to try to use this new location as a work spot, only to find the bookstore closed for an author event, and a line down the block of people waiting to go in. I joined them, for no reason other than knowing I had to be back in that space, whether productively or not, and spent the next hour listening to John and Hank Green rehearse for a show they were performing the next night at Carnegie Hall.

photo 3 (3)On Wednesday, my friend Lindsey came to visit me from Baltimore, and we spent two days zipping from one end of Manhattan to the other, eating macarons, seeking out gluten-free dim sum in Chinatown, and exploring the used book room of the Strand. Lindsey and I have been friends since the age of five, and literature has always been one of the main things we have in common (as well as eating, that is!). It was only natural, then, that we made the goal of her visit to find and visit the fabled secret bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

I had first heard of Brazen Head books in the summer after my Junior year of college, when I worked for a historical magazine in Union Square and heard the young, hip editors discuss a bookstore zoned as an apartment which a man ran secretly, only admitting guests by word of mouth. Late that year, the New York Times ran a story on the New Inquiry, a magazine started by a group of intellectual, underemployed young graduates whose academic interests and refusal to give up their literary dreams in the face of a routine day job, had led them to found a modern literary salon. The group met once a week, in the secret location of a bookstore in Manhattan, which had once been located in a retail building in Brooklyn, but closed once the owner could no longer pay rent. Lindsey had read about this very same place in an article in the Paris Review, and when she proposed we endeavor to find it, I knew this had been in the works for nearly two years, and it was time to see what magic we could work.

We looked up the name of a man in the white pages, whose phone did not pick up, and at whose apartment we knocked and were met by a British woman, who gave us a telephone number and another address, and told us in hushed tones to call later that day, and a man would meet us. We did so, and, yesterday afternoon, found ourselves ringing an unlabeled buzzer in a prewar building, and climbing a narrow staircase to stand in front of a blue painted door.

The owner led us inside, and I was struck by a sensation I have not felt in years. It was beyond wonder, beyond disbelief, beyond awe. In those four narrow rooms, lined floor-to-ceiling by thousands of books, smelling of pipe smoke and whiskey and the dreams of young writers, I had found what can only be described as magic.

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In Marcel’s words,

I was glued to the sensation of the moment, with no extension beyond its limits, nor any object other than not to be separated from it, I should have died in and with that sensation, I should have let myself be slaughtered without offering any resistance, without a movement, a bee drugged with tobacco smoke that had ceased to take any thought for preserving the accumulation of its labours and the hopes of its hive. (540)

We wandered from shelf to shelf for what felt like hours, talking to the owner (a character and a true bibliophile, who curates every book in his exquisite library), opening first-editions and breathing in their scent, climbing on stools to reach bindings that felt like leather and smelled like possibility. Come back on Thursday night, he told me. I have groups of young writers who come, drink, and discuss literature. You would fit right in. I promised I would, and left in a state of total bliss. I had found the thing for which I had been searching for these past aimless few weeks. I had found once again the reason for which I write, the joy that comes from words, and words alone.

photo 4 (3)There are moments when I wonder if I could have chosen a more secure or profitable profession, moments when I become frustrated by the life of a writer and consider alternatives, moments, quite simply, when I doubt myself. This was not one of those, and I left Brazen Head books with two well-worn volumes and a newfound resolution. I would not write to get a career, would not write to achieve fame or success or any measure of recognition. I would write, quite simply, because words are the nearest things to magic in this world. And to be able to create them is what lets me feel alive.

So here’s to the coffee shop days, to hidden bookstores and waiting. I cannot promise glamour, in any shape or form, cannot assure you any success or fortune. But I will say, if you stick with me, there will always be words, and the hope that they can get us through the longest of winters.