review: what now?

6 02 2009

Ann Patchett’s What Now? is based on a commencement address the she gave at Sarah Lawrence College, and it is probably a book I should start carrying with me at most times, so that when panic and uncertainty about the future strikes – which it does far too often – I can whip it out and read a passage and feel once again able to embrace the promise and opportunities that lie in the unknown.  This is not something that I’m particularly good at, this embracing of the unknown.  Looking back on crossroads, on key decisions in my life, I do believe that things have always turned out for the best, that I’ve got where I’ve needed to go, but it’s hard to remember that at the time.  Most of my uncertainty has had to do with career moves.  It seems a constant area of stress in my life.  I’ve found it very hard to settle into any job.  I’m panicked when I don’t have a job, but then just after getting one, I seem to start feeling trapped, and I still am unsure whether this is because it’s the wrong job or because I just have a very bad understanding of what a job should be.

I’ve always felt so unsure of the right thing do job-wise.  The question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” terrified me for years because I never had a proper answer.  There’s only one thing I ever said I wanted to be: a writer.  That was when I wasn’t very old and I was discouraged from that at the time because I was told you can’t make a living doing that and I was too young to know otherwise – and I think that story probably deserves a posting all on its own.  Since that time, I’ve gone from career field to career field, always thinking it might be something I’d like to do, but never saying again, with such conviction, “I want to be this.”  Because of this, I’ve come to many career-crises and many crossroads, each decision seeming like the two (or three or four) unknown paths I stood before would set my future course forever, no U-Turns allowed.  I realize now that that isn’t the case.  There are some decisions I can make that have a “no-turning-back-stamp” on them, but they are very few and far-between and have nothing whatsoever to do with a career.

What I liked so much about Patchett’s book was how she stressed that all these small, seemingly insignificant moments had lead her where she needed to be, and more specifically to what she needed for herself as a writer.  Patchett does a fantastic job of connecting key personal experiences to major life lessons, such as a story about a Hare Krishna man that she encounters at the airport and who helps her find her gate and then who she ends up listening to for two hours.  Her encounter with him teaches her that most people need to talk and that “often a willingness to sit and listen is the greatest kindness one person can offer to another” (35).

Patchett’s central point is that “what now is not just a panic-stricken question tossed out into a dark unknown.  What now can also be our joy.  it is a declaration of possibility, of promise, of chance.”  I think I’m getting better at embracing that philosophy, though it is still very much a work in progress for me.  Watching, staring, being very still – also key ideas Patchett raises in the book – these are all things I keep working on.  And yes, I’m back at writing as I said in an earlier post and that, to borrow from Frost, has made all the difference.  It is in that area where I can quiet the fear and look on “what now?” with such a sense of possibility.  As Patchett says towards the end of her essay, “Identify your heart’s truest desire and don’t change that for anything” (78).

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