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.

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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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Marcel Becomes a Writer

I spent my day today scanning magazines. Eleven hours and hundreds of pages went by as I rushed to complete a project in time for the Editor-In-Chief to have for a meeting on Tuesday. I scanned photographs of elephants sinking into mud, of South African prisoners, of families eating dinner. I scanned essays penned by art critics and museum curators, historians and authors. Arthur Danto and Vince Aletti passed under my hands as I scanned and scanned and wondered when it would be that I will finally be able to fill those pages with words of my own. I came home at eight o’clock, took a bath, and dragged my copy of Within a Budding Grove into the sudsy water with me. Of all people, I thought, Marcel will give me patience.

When I first began this endeavor, three months and what seems like a million years ago, I asked Olivia, who had taken Peter’s Proust class the year before, what the novel was actually about. I knew it was canonical, massive, had something to do with a magic madeleine and memory, but that was about the extent of my Proust expertise. She hesitated for a moment, laughed, and said, “you could say it’s a novel about nothing if you wanted. You could say it’s about memory. But probably the best one-sentence summary of Proust that I’ve heard is ‘Marcel becomes a writer.'” That’s it? I thought. And it takes him four thousand pages?

As I waded into Swann’s Way and began to immerse myself in Proust’s cyclical, mesmeric narration, however, I began to understand what she meant. The narrator’s search to find his literary voice crops up here and there, an underlying motif that, while clearly important, has not yet become the central focus of the text. As a child, Marcel takes his pen to the steeple of the church at Combray, seeking to fix into prose the elusive beauty of its spire. He tells his parents he wants to devote his life to a literary career, and his father instantly disapproves. Marcel pouts, laments his lack of talent, and returns to Swann’s drama, and it is not until book two that he once again addresses this dream, this time as a lovesick adolescent.

Towards the beginning of Within a Budding Grove, Marcel’s parents have the Marquis de Norpois, an ambassador whose pomposity and scathing wit amuse the reader, over to dinner. After a series of haughty dismissals, the Marquis finally encourages Marcel’s father to envision a literary career for his son, and, remarkably, the father agrees.

My mother appeared none too pleased that my father no longer thought of a diplomatic career for me. “Don’t worry,” my father told her, “the main thing is that a man should find pleasure in his work. He’s no longer a child. He knows pretty well now what he likes, it’s very unlikely that he will change, and he’s quite capable of deciding for himself what will make him happy in life.”

This pronouncement, which would appear to signify Marcel’s father’s acceptance and support of his son’s career and therefore presumably bring the narrator great relief, instead sends the teenager into paroxysms of renewed neuroses. Marcel has won his freedom, his father’s permission to take the lead in his career. Now he must decide what to do with it.

That evening, as I waited for the time to arrive when, thanks to the freedom of choice which they allowed me, I should or should not begin to be happy in life, my father’s words caused me great uneasiness[…]as an author becomes ashamed when he sees the fruits of his own meditations, which do not appear to him to be of great value since he does not separate them from himself, oblige a publisher to choose a brand of paper, to employ a type face finer, perhaps, than they deserve, I asked myself whether my desire to write was of sufficient importance to justify my father in dispensing so much generosity.

Once he is allowed to harbor literary dreams, Marcel fears he does not deserve these aspirations, and goes back to his own frustrations, taking pen to paper over and over without without finding satisfaction in his work, disillusioned and morose. And yet we know that this is only the beginning of a passion that will accompany him to page 4,211, a passion which he will ultimately harness.

Which brings me back, at last, to twenty-first century Manhattan, working a barely-paid editorial internship, scanning pages out of a magazine in the hopes that someday, miraculously, my name will be printed in one. Nora and I are both desperately chasing a life that, at best, involves long hours and slim paychecks, devoting ourselves to a medium that may very well be gone in twenty years along with the printed newspaper, and a career that is anything but glamorous. Journalism is a field that seems to attract nothing but pessimism; writers are broke, manic, and slightly unhinged, newspapers dying and thin. And yet here I am, fighting as hard as I can to somehow wade into these murky waters, tying my future to a field that, if I am to listen to the media, may not have one. Surely, one thinks, there must be better dreams to pursue, more sane aspirations?

The name of this volume, À l’Ombre des Jeune Filles en Fleurs, most directly translates to “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” which, to me, is much more beautiful and melodic than “Within a Budding Grove.” But either way, I find it fitting at this moment in our lives, when we find ourselves wandering through a darkened forest of budding trees, waiting for the sunlight to make them flower. 

When people ask me why I want to be a writer, I give a different answer depending on what kind of a mood I am in, every varient some version of the same truth. Sometimes I say that it is the only thing I can imagine doing with my life, which has been the case since I was twelve years old. Sometimes I say it’s a way for me to get out all of the words I have inside me and get paid for it. Sometimes I say it’s the only thing I have ever been really good at.

And sometimes, if I am feeing especially lyrical, I say I write because it makes me feel as if my veins are on fire, my heart is in my throat, my fingers cannot scribble or tap fast enough to keep up with the words tumbling from my lips. I write because it is the strongest high there is, because it fills me with that desperate, feverish sensation that I chase but can never pin down. Because it is the same feeling as leaning back on a sailboat against the pull of the wind, with nothing but air and salty spray beneath your back. I write because without writing, I would not know fully what it is to be alive. And in that way, I suppose, my choice of a career has never been a question for me.

So here we are, like Marcel, wandering through the pages of our own narratives, trying to write them. Here we are, walking through that springtime forest, searching for the first buds. And this is what I tell myself at the end of long days when my future seems dim and foolish: bide your time, for you are budding. In a way, we are all budding. And I have no doubt, for what it is worth, that we will bloom.