blue sky. the morning of september 11, 2001 i met my editor tracy devine and bantam deputy publisher nita taublib for breakfast at charlotte, just across the street from the random house offices. it was one of our many wonderful meetings, talking about books and life--a colleague of ours had just gotten married, and we were catching up on that when we heard a plane had hit one of the world trade towers.
a small plane i thought, it had to be, but how terrible no matter the size, how shocking. but it wasn't a small plane, and then the second jet hit, and nita and tracy and i hugged goodbye and hurried away into our lives to plan and make sense or no-sense and be in new york city--all three of us lived there--that had already changed forever, only we just didn't know it yet.
impressions: the blue sky everyone still talks about; plume of smoke visible from midtown, constant sirens, walking downtown and seeing people on cell phones--i didn't have one yet. an hour later, after the towers fell, seeing people in business suits covered with ash. the next nights: below 14th street, a dust cloud that glowed red after dark, as thick as the foggiest london night. the posters hung by families, their missing loved ones, on the wall by famous ray's pizza across from st. vincent's hospital. going to the cathedral of st. john the divine, didn't matter what religion you were or were not, just a place to gather and pray and mourn.
the city smelled of smoke and ghosts. people were kind to each other but also lost it on a frequent basis. i remember those early days, tuning into local tv news, pre-theme music. do you know what i mean? the moment when a tragedy acquires a combination of familiarity and production values, and the tv producers give it solemn theme music and a name. it takes away the raw. i hated when that happened a day or two after 9/11.
heading to the west side highway many nights--closed to traffic, it was kept open for search and rescue workers. people lined the streets, watching pickup trucks, fire trucks, many with out of state plates, drive south toward the world trade center. i was in the midst of leaving a worse than bad marriage, but the tragedy bound us together for a few more months, and those first nights after the towers collapsed we'd go to the west side highway, watch those rescue trucks in the surreal riverside light. i couldn't bear for anything else to collapse.
during the early days after the attack, friends helped at the site. the poet-nun sister leslie went to st. paul's with other sisters from her community, to offer spiritual comfort to the rescue workers. poet-naturalist e.j. mcadams, then an urban park ranger, spent days in and around the rubble, going into apartments to rescue animals abandoned in the evacuation. interesting that my two closest poet friends had reason to be there--the city needed poets more than ever.
the week after the towers fell i stood on park avenue south and watched a woman in a yellow dress commit suicide, jumping from a ledge and landing at my feet. the grief in the city was unimaginable. had she lost someone in the towers? or was the city's collective sorrow just too much to bear?
in december my friend, poet, writer, and radio personality colin mcenroe came to the city from hartford and he is a sensitive soul as we all know so we went downtown but mostly we went to the cathedral to watch paul winter prepare for his solstice concert and a few days later there was a fire in the cathedral and everything seemed touched by sorrow, mystical beauty, blue stained glass, and the unpredictability of life.
ten years have passed. the anniversary unbearable at first, but time dulls, if not heals, the shock and pain. for years the cats and i have looked out my south-facing chelsea windows to see the towers of light rising up from where the twin towers once stood. they appear beautiful, mystical, but i love nature, and i couldn't and can't deny that they're magnets to birds that fly by night, fall migrants heading south for the winter--the birds get trapped in the light columns, and at dawn fall to the ground. after a while i couldn't stand seeing those light towers--they reminded me of death, not hope. so i stopped looking out my window the last years of this decade of september 11's.
i'm not in ny this year. i want to be far away, and i am. the sky is blue, the way it was that day. there are no speeches or memorials or flags. there are no columns of light. but there is peace and prayer and memory, and there are poems, and there is love. nita and tracy, we were together that morning. i'm holding your hands, wherever you are.
It rained, but the day was beautiful, filled with celebration. How moving, to be at St. Joseph College in West Hartford CT, my mother's alma mater with friends and family, and how honored I felt to receive an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, along with the inspiring and lovely Kerry Robinson. Laurette Laramie, my beloved friend and high school history teacher, a distinguished alum of St. Joe's, was instrumental in my receiving this degree--I was so thrilled to spend the day with Laurette. We share a special love for Breakfast at Tiffany's, so she wore pearls, and we listened to Moon River on the way to the college. My sister Maureen Onorato drove up with Olivier, and we walked around Mercy Hall--our mother's dormitory--and felt her spirit with us. Molly and Alex Feinstein, our niece and nephew, took a day away from GoBerry in Northampton MA (best frozen yogurt in New England, actually, the world, I'm serious, you have to try it,) to be with us. And my fellow writer and member of the family and movable feast, Colin McEnroe, got up early after a night of jazz to be with us. Later, after the graduation, he blogged about two artists with whom we're both a bit obsessed.
I thank President Pamela Trotman Reid--extraordinary, radiant, an inspiration in all ways; Sister Patricia Rooney--awesome Sister of Mercy, a wonderful woman and spiritual powerhouse, I loved her instantly; the Board of Trustees; and, especially, Laurette Laramie--the best teacher in Connecticut-- she is an angel on earth, a scholar's scholar, a singular teacher who sees the huge picture and introduces the students to their own vision; and the late Kathleen Stingle, a champion of goodness and kindness, always advocating for those who need it most, for making yesterday possible. Love to you all. And thanks, Mom. I know you were there.
Here is my graduation speech:
Greetings and congratulations, Class of 2011!
You have worked and studied so hard to get to this moment in your lives, and here you are today, graduates of St. Joseph College. You join the ranks of many wonderful, brilliant, creative, metaphysical, caring, scientific St. Joe’s alumnae, including three of the women I love most in this world: my mother, Lucille Arrigan Rice, class of ’46, Kathleen Stingle, class of ’58, and my dear friend and teacher, Laurette Laramie, class of ’60. I am grateful for my honorary degree, and proud to be among you.
You have learned so much on this beautiful campus, in these brick halls. Your time here has readied you for today and tomorrow and tomorrow—your college experience lives in you now, in your heart and soul and bones, not just in your intellect, or in the observable details of your lives. St. Joseph College is now part of you, and you of it, and will be forever.
Your education has helped you to grow and change, but as you go along, life’s alchemy will work not only on YOU, but on this wonderful education, and IT will grow and change along with you. At each step going forward, you will regard everything you’ve learned from a new perspective, and it will deepen exponentially so you can better understand yourself and the human condition, which, as you probably already know, are one and the same.
I never graduated from college. I dropped out for reasons tragic and absurd, all of which contributed to why I became a writer. Although I’m not sure one becomes a writer—writing summons one, much in the way of a religious calling, and once that happens the writer really don’t have much choice. Plus it’s the only “job,” and I say that in quotation marks, that is best done in pajamas, on a couch, living in the imagination, surrounded by cats, and I really can’t complain about that.
You will go forth from here and do extraordinary things—every single one of you. That is a given. Some of you have jobs lined up, or have been accepted into graduate school. Some of you have a game plan, and some of you may not—yet. You’re all dreaming, and some of those dreams may be clearer than others. No matter where you fall in the day-of-graduation planning stage, remember: nothing is set in stone, and as long as you keep your heart and mind open, anything is possible.
So. With “anything is possible” as our north star, I’d like to share some truths that have helped me most along the way.
Let’s start with “nothing is set in stone.” That idea used to terrify me. I wanted solidity, permanence, reassurances that each choice I made was the right one, and that the results would last forever. I am here to report that life is more like a river than a rock, that it flows and changes constantly, and carries us along in an ever-transforming way. So be in the flow, don’t be afraid of the rapids, and enjoy the mad adventure.
Listen to yourself.
There’s a voice inside you, wiser than the voice of anyone you will ever meet. People may try to sway you, to convince you of their way of thinking, cause you to doubt yourself. They might mean well, and love you. That is not the point, and can sometimes, in fact, confuse the situation. Support and good guidance are most welcome—I always run decisions past my trusted inner circle. But when it comes to the actual making up of your mind, trust your own inner voice. Learn how to listen for it, and know it won’t let you down.
To thine own self be true. Trust your own goodness and wisdom. If you do what is right for you, with a good motive, it is right for everyone else. This is not being selfish. It is honoring your own beliefs and desires, acknowledging your own wisdom, having compassion for yourself and others. One of my patterns as a young woman was reading people and giving them what I thought they wanted. In doing so, I prevented myself from being authentic. It’s taken time, but I’ve outgrown that behavior, and I daresay it’s better for all concerned.
Make mistakes. Make a lot of them. Don’t try to be perfect because a) perfection is really boring, b) it’s impossible anyway, and c) mistakes can be fun, enlightening, and turn out to be the best thing you’ve ever done.
Remind me to tell you about how leaving Zurich one time I missed a turn on the autobahn and ended up in Brussels instead of Paris, randomly having a drink in the lobby of a venerable hotel that had once been a prison with a stranger who said she was a black market diamond merchant from Amsterdam—and why would she make that up?—but was also a computer expert, and this was long ago when few people had computers, and I had just written my first novel in longhand, and yikes, revising was a bear, you can’t imagine, and this diamond merchant convinced me that a computer was the way to go, and, being that the hour was late and I was too tired to drive to Paris—I checked into the hotel with my Scottie dog Gelsey, and the next day drove to the IBM store on Avenue Louise to buy an ordinateur, that’s “computer” in French, one of the languages spoken in Belgium, and wound up spending three months writing Crazy in Love in a tiny garret overlooking the Grand Place, and, wow, was writing and revising so much easier on my IBM ordinateur, first-generation laptop, than with the old fountain pen and legal pad, and let me tell you that’s a wrong turn and mistake I’ve never regretted. So—make mistakes.
And let others make theirs. You can’t change anyone but yourself. If you love someone and you think they’re going down a bad road, know it’s their bad road. Everyone deserves the dignity of her own life. There’s a difference between love and control. It’ll save you a lot of pain if you learn to distinguish between the two.
Try not to compare yourself to anyone. Stay focused on your own celestial navigation, and don’t worry that someone else might seem to be happier, thinner, more successful, with a nicer car and/or a cuter boyfriend. Everything is relative. Wish everyone the best, root for them, hope they gain their heart’s desires. Also, you’re thin enough. Trust me on this. US Weekly has a lot to answer for. They make us all feel as if we should be size 2. When I was your age, size 2 didn’t even exist—it was size 6 or maybe even 8. You are beautiful the way you are.
Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold. I did not make that up. Neither did my grandmother, though she used to say it all the time. There is nothing more precious than a good friend. Keep the ones you’ve loved forever, but don’t be afraid to open up to someone new. Surround yourself with the best people you can find, ones that tell you the truth and are inclined to take your part in a positive way. If you have doubts about whether someone is good for you or not, here’s the test that works for me: how do you feel right after you say goodbye? If you feel uplifted and good about yourself, say yes to the friendship. If you feel down, full of self-doubt, or with any hit to your self-esteem, the unfriend button is there for a reason.
Reality television is stupid. I encourage you never to watch it.
Read as much as you can.
Television, Twitter, and Facebook don’t take the place of books, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a writer. Reading gives you time away, time with yourself. Let yourself be still and quiet as often as your busy life will permit. Write. Have opinions, and find beauty in language.
Of anything I could tell you, that might be the most important. Poems can soothe your soul, heal your heart, inspire you to greatness. I’d like to close with a favorite poem by one of my favorite poets, and I hope you’ll pay special attention to the last line.
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?