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"What now is always going to be a work in progress."
on May 8, 2008
It's that time of year again. The advent of spring brings warmer weather, budding trees, gorgeous new flowers, and commencement exercises. Ann Patchett's "What Now?" is an essay based on an address that she delivered to a group of freshly minted graduates at Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater.
In a postscript, Ann admits that her first draft was a disaster. She was saved from humiliation by the advice of her former college professor, who warned her that she had better start over again. Her speech should be much more personal. "It should be about me," Ann writes, "my time in college, my life as a writer. He said it should be funny." So she rewrote the whole thing after staring into space for a while (a good way to get the juices flowing, Patchett assures us).
Most of us can relate to Ann's words about the swift passage of time, the weird twists and turns that lead us down unanticipated paths, and the ingenuousness of youth. "Even if you have it all together you can't know where you're going to end up." She describes the loneliness that she felt as a seventeen year old from Tennessee during the days before email and text-messaging connected people electronically. Long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, so Ann had to fall back on old-fashion methods of communication. Remember letter writing? By sending missives to her family and friends, Ann says, "I learned how to transfer the contents of my heart onto a piece of paper." This "proved as instructive to me as any writing class."
Fortunately, Ann's Catholic school background prepared her well. She already knew all about humility and reaching out to others, and these qualities helped set her on the right path. One of the first friends she made at Sarah Lawrence was Alice Ilchman, the new president of the school, and a woman whom she would grow to love dearly. Another lesson that Ann passes on is one that I, as a librarian, have known for a long time. "Pay attention to the things [you'll] probably never need to know...listen carefully to the people who look as if they have nothing to teach [you]... see school as something that goes on everywhere...." Never underestimate the value of listening. Even Ann's work as a line cook and waitress were useful in making her the person she aspired to be. At a time when so many distractions demand our attention, including our kids, our jobs, events of the world--Patchett recommends that we occasionally welcome "stillness, silence, and studied consideration." Sometimes we have to let the answers come to us rather than frantically hunt them down.
"What Now?" is a lovely little book that works because the author tells us what we know in our hearts to be true in a way that is gentle, funny, and beautifully expressed. The art consists of black and white photos of jigsaw puzzles, people standing before closed doors, individuals wending their way through mazes, footprints in the sand, and lots of road signs. This small volume would serve nicely as a gift for your favorite high school or college graduate. Let some young person know that "what now...is a declaration of possibility, of promise, of chance." I have always been sentimental at commencements, and the idea "that at every point in our development we are still striving to grow" still fills me with wonder.